McKinsey update highlights new era for Chinese consumer spending

    McKinsey's latest update reveals significant shifts in Chinese consumer behavior and corporate performance, with implications for both local and international businesses.
    China's service sector, especially travel and entertainment, is surging back to life. Image: Shutterstock

    A recent update from McKinsey & Company, "China Consumption: Start of a New Era," reveals significant shifts in consumer behavior and corporate performance in China’s retail sector. The findings highlight a move away from the country's previous high-growth era, with implications for both local and international businesses.

    A shift in retail growth and consumer sentiment#

    China's retail sector, long relied upon for double-digit growth, has entered a period of more modest increases. The third quarter of 2022 saw retail sales of goods grow by only 3%, a marked slowdown across various categories such as cosmetics, clothing, and appliances. Despite a 7.5% increase in retail sales in October, indicators suggest that slower growth is here to stay, at least for the near term.

    "We're looking back to the third quarter of 2023, which brought an increase of retail sales in the mid-single digits," Daniel Zipser, a Senior Partner at McKinsey, noted in an accompanying video. Consumer sentiment has significantly plateaued, hovering around all-time lows since April 2022. This is partly due to a drop in residential property transactions and declining exports.

    Despite a 5% unemployment rate in urban areas and a 6% annual increase in disposable incomes, Chinese consumers remain cautious, especially regarding property spending. This is perhaps unsurprising, given continued uncertainty surrounding the country's real estate market going into the new year. China's household savings rate is significantly higher than pre-Covid levels, indicating potential for future consumer expenditure.

    Photo: Shutterstock
    Photo: Shutterstock

    Service sector and digital consumption#

    Despite a broader retail slowdown, China's service sector, especially travel and entertainment, is surging back to life. As Zipser notes, "We see travel roaring back, with domestic travel now surpassing pre-pandemic levels." This resurgence in domestic travel is more than a mere rebound; it represents a profound shift in consumer behavior. With current constraints on international travel due to visa processing times and high-priced flights, there's an increased focus among Chinese consumers on premium domestic experiences, such as high-end dining and luxury accommodations.

    Zipser does anticipate a resurgence in international travel as logistical barriers ease, reflecting the strong underlying appetite for travel among Chinese consumers. This trend is indicative of a larger transformation within the service sector, where a pivot towards enriched domestic experiences is poised to continue influencing market dynamics, alongside a potential return to international travel.

    In the digital sphere, this year’s Singles' Day (also known as Double 11) shopping festival, a key event in China's retail calendar, reached RMB 1.1 trillion (155.3 billion) in gross merchandise value (GMV), a modest 2% expansion over the previous year largely driven by discounts and promotions. However, livestreaming sales surged, contributing significantly to total sales, reflecting an ongoing move towards digital consumption channels.

    Corporate performance: divergence and innovation#

    The performance of 80 leading, publicly listed consumer companies in China presents a varied landscape. About one-quarter of these companies experienced year-to-date double-digit growth, while 12% faced double-digit declines. "Even during an era of single-digit growth, we actually have pockets where we see very healthy and strong growth," adds Zipser. Success is increasingly linked to innovating brand launches, business models, and agility in responding to market changes.

    Long-term prospects and cautious optimism#

    Despite current challenges, McKinsey holds that the long-term prospects for China's retail sector remain robust. As Zipser puts it, "My outlook for 2024 remains cautiously optimistic." The retail market is expected to grow by 5% annually, potentially positioning China as the largest global growth market in the near future. "A 4% to 5% growth would actually still add the retail sales in China of an India and Indonesia today combined," Zipser concludes, underscoring the immense potential of the Chinese consumer market.

    Takeaways at-a-glance#

    Shift in retail growth

    China's retail sector, previously known for its double-digit growth, saw only a 3% increase in Q3 2022, indicating an end to the high-growth era.

    Consumer sentiment plateauing

    Consumer sentiment has stagnated since April 2022, influenced by reduced property transactions and declining exports, despite a 5% urban unemployment rate and a 6% annual rise in disposable incomes.

    Service sector growth

    Contrasting the retail slowdown, the service sector, especially travel and entertainment, exhibits robust growth, signaling a shift towards service consumption.

    Digital consumption rise

    The Singles' Day shopping festival reached RMB 1.1 trillion (155.3 billion) in GMV in 2023, with a modest 2% growth driven by promotions and a surge in livestreaming sales.

    Corporate performance variance

    Among 80 leading consumer companies in China, a quarter achieved double-digit growth, while 12% faced significant declines. Success is increasingly linked to innovation and responsiveness to market changes.

    Long-term market outlook

    Despite current challenges, China's retail sector is projected to grow by 5% annually, potentially making it the largest global growth market, supported by an increase in upper-middle and high-income households.

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