China Consumer Market: Asian Perspective Helps

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The rise of China since 1989 has been the most remarkable development story of our times. The number of people lifted out of poverty is historically unprecedented: 65 percent of Chinese people lived below the poverty line in 1981; in 2007 it was 4 percent (World Bank).

Many commentators have focused on China’s astonishing work ethic, vast labour resources and ability to export great quantities of products. But while China has been busy meeting the needs of the world economy, domestic Chinese consumption has received less attention.

Yet, with the Chinese firmly established as keen savers and very ambitious to improve their living standards, a vast new opportunity has emerged: the Chinese consumer market. But it will be a tricky market to tap. Chinese consumers are notorious bargain hunters and prefer to save and invest rather than consume. Poor rural families earning less than US $200 per person a year still are able to save 18 percent of their income.

This makes a lot of sense: social supports have been stripped away as China’s economy embraced the market system. If you do not save and invest, then you will not have the resources to meet the costs of education and health care, for example. China has also seen a dramatic move to urban areas, with over 43 percent of the population now urban.

China, despite all the hype, is still a marketplace that is difficult to easily enter for Western brands and businesses. And this makes for an opportunity for local brands to raise their game.

In order to compete in the consumer market, businesses need to do more than compete on price: they need to also offer something more and that usually involves building a strong brand.

The Chinese urban consumer market could grow from around US $570 billion in 2005 to around US $4.7 trillion by 2025 (PWC) (http://www.pwc.co.uk). Fast growth will be seen in discretionary spending, things other than food, clothing and utilities.

While Chinese businesses have focused on export markets and meeting the needs of the global marketplace – a focus which has been very successful and led to remarkable wealth gains – the Chinese consumer has come lower down the list of priorities.

Growing the domestic consumer market offers a substantial wealth-creating opportunity. Since the global economic crisis erupted in 2008, it has become apparent that the old model of exporting vast quantities of products to Western consumers alone will not be enough to keep living standards rising. Western economies are highly indebted and will take many years to recover from the mistakes and debts from the boom years and the economic crisis.

This is an opportunity for South-South trade, which made up 20 percent of global exports by 2010. Foreign direct investment to developing economies rose by 10 percent in 2010 due to a rapid economic recovery and increasing South-South flows.

One company successfully targeting this market is the Singapore-based Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts brand (www.banyantree.com), which bills itself as specializing in luxury sanctuaries to rejuvenate the body, mind and soul. It is notable for deliberately not competing on price but on its brand reputation and for tailoring its offering explicitly to Asian tastes. The company claims its resorts are “naturally-luxurious, ecologically sensitive, culture-aware experiences for the discerning, responsible traveller.”

The first Banyan Tree resort was built in Phuket, Thailand in 1987. It now employs 8,200 people from 50 nationalities in 26 resorts. Founder and executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping focused from the start on the business’s brand as critical to driving the growth of the company.

He told INSEAD Knowledge: “The difference between us and some others is that, for many other companies having a strong brand is a reward for being successful in many things that you do but it’s sort of coincidental. It comes afterward; it’s a reward for success in other areas. For us, we’ve always said from the very beginning – having a strong brand is imperative for our survival.”

Banyan Tree has also eschewed quick-growth models, instead trying to do as little environmental damage as possible and to include community development and environmental projects at each resort.

Its Banyan Tree Ringha resort in China’s Yunnan province tries to bring the atmosphere of the fictional earthly paradise of Shangri-La to China. Ringha Valley sits near the Temple of the Five Wisdom Buddhas, 3,600 meters above sea level. The resort has 15 one-bedroom suites, 11 two-bedroom lodges, and six spa suites, decorated in a Tibetan style. The area is home to the Naxi people who trace their origins to nearby Tibet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naxi_people).

The accommodation is rustic and the resort is located in the middle of a village. Visitors can see farmers at work right from the resort. Overlooked by Tibetan mountains and settled in a lush, fertile valley the sight was picked for its tranquillity and isolation. The appeal of the area to tourists is clear: mountain peaks, deep canyons, rivers, valleys, streams and tranquil lakes. And in polluted urban China, it is an area free from pollution.

The resort is built from transplanted Tibetan farm houses and offers hikes, mountain lakes, hot springs, gorges, forests. There are Asian touches like a welcome at the resort of Tibetan horns, songs and a tea ceremony.

Tourism is transforming the area. Towns and villages have been renovated to showcase traditional architecture.

The hotel and resort chain gets its name from the tradition of ancient merchants gathering under the branches of the banyan tree to conduct business in the cool shade.

“The 21st century is really going to be the age of Asia – both India and China,” said Ho Kwon Ping. “The huge consumer markets are going to be Asian … Now there’s a real opportunity for people of Asian origin, who have an instinctive cultural feel for where their consumers are moving towards, to come out and create a brand which can be primarily rooted in their own Asian context, but have a global relevance.”

Resources

1) How big will the Chinese consumer market get by 2025? A report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Website: http://tinyurl.com/5upqew8

2) An interactive map of Africa’s new wealth and where to find it. Website: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704720804576009672053184168.html#project%3DAFRICAMAP0111%26articleTabs%3Dinteractive

3) A video on the rising African consumer market. Website: http://annansi.com/blog/2010/12/growth-and-spending-of-african-consumer-video/

4) Environmental Public Awareness Handbook: Case Studies and Lessons Learned in Mongolia: Tested approaches to community development and environmental protection in Asia. Website: http://www.scribd.com/doc/28633063/Environmental-Public-Awareness-Handbook-Case-Studies-and-Lessons-Learned-in-Mongolia-Part-One?in_collection=2521442

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