by Philix Liu
23 November 2023
Introduction: In this exploration of the shifting consumer behaviors of Chinese youth, we challenge the notion that consumerism is on the decline. Examining the prevalent 'lay-down' attitude, we uncover the commercial implications and shed light on the emerging trends towards frugality and practical consumption.
On Chinese social media these days, there has been a surge of discussions around how to ‘reverse consumption’ and how to ‘save money with rage’. Thanks to the rising popularity of 'lay-down' attitude, the pursuit of pragmatic consumption and pride of frugality began to gain traction among the Chinese youth, almost resembling the value and lifestyle popular in my parents’ generations in 1980s and 1990s when supply was actually scarce. As a direct consequence, the consumer spending has quickly gone into a chill mode despite the short-lived uptick in early 2023 after the China reopening. New York Times calls it China’s New Thrift Economy, hugely in contrast to when ‘buy buy buy’ was the main theme song for China’s economy prior to 2023.
Qualitatively, based on my observations in several malls in Shanghai (aside from top luxury malls), the foot traffic has been reduced visibly overall and much is diverted to basement floors where convenient and affordable F&B are situated; whereas the premium and luxury brands on level 1 and 2 are less visited and shopped than pre-COVID.
Shanghai Babaiban Mall at 6PM (mass premium mall), in 2023.
It is certainly fair to question the future of consumption among Chinese youth due to the ‘lay-down’ （躺平）attitude and ‘stoic’ （佛系）lifestyle, when they realize it is hard to make money but not so hard to not to spend money and quench big wants and urges. With the highest recorded youth unemployment rate in China (government stopped publishing such data in June 2023), we have all the reasons to worry about the future of consumption among Chinese youth.
Young white collars flocked to buy lottery tickets after work as a rising hobby in 2023.
Meanwhile, brands, whether luxury or mass ones, have been giving it all to lure the youth back into the game and capture their attention by making a splash:
For instance, collaborative brands’ campaigns and pop-up stores have become the go-to tactics for gaining immediate foot-traffic and marketing buzz in the past 12 months: Fendi x HeyTea and Moutai x Luckin. By lowering the barrier and bringing the youth closer to the brands, these campaigns by luxury brands now have offered a little taste for the Chinese youth so they could potentially come back later for more when they have the spending power.
Collab between Fendi and HeyTea was a big hit along with many other collabs in 2023.
Despite hitting the marketing KPIs out of the park, it is still questionable whether these campaigns could generate long-term revenue and create a lasting and positive impact. Regardless, the great insight here is quite meaningful: the aspiration for luxury (and its associated lifestyle) is still powerful and prevalent among the youth; however, despite the success on raising brand awareness on social media, the youth may regard these brands’ campaigns and pop-up stores merely as a scene vending out free goodies, which can be even sold on second-hand market for a profit. A lot of buzz and one-time transaction, little sustainable relationship. To a greater extent, the impact of such vanity-seeking campaigns can also be only limited in top tier cities and cannot ripple into lower tier cities.
Besides luxury brands’ push to target Chinese youth’s minds and behaviors, we are also seeing brands trying different tactics to adapt to this new norm of spending less and saving more. Here is a short summary of brands and campaigns worth noting:
The most straightforward low cost strategy: Meituan, Xianyu, Pinduoduo.com
Decrease the unit price, increase and fix the spending behavior: KFC Crazy Thursday
Democratize the product by shrinking the content/size: Harmay #minibeauty trend
Shop experience via lowered barrier to entry: Dior afternoon tea, LV bookstore
通过小“容量”使产品大众化：话梅 #小美丽 趋势
Meituan's campaign celebrating saving and living a low-cost lifestyle.
Crazy Thursday campaign by KFC, promoting low-cost deals.
Mini-sized cosmetic samples sold at Harmay store (photo credit: China Daily)
LV's pop-up bookstore in Shanghai went viral online and offline.
Some thoughts and implications:
Instead of questioning where this trend could lead us, many would are probably more interested in knowing how long will this last until we get back to ‘normal’. My answer is that the cautious spending attitude and mindset is not going anywhere in the short term but it doesn’t mean that the consumerism is dead for Chinese youth. They are still eager to find experiences and products worth their money, just with more scrutiny and research. As social media natives, they are extremely savvy and resourceful when it comes to making a spending decision. They seek for authentic and trustworthy opinion leaders’ opinions and guidance. They also seek for products with great value and less gimmick.
They can still be impulsive in spending (young and irrational should come hand in hand right?). They look for novel and exciting experience, not only to share with friends on social media, but also truly to strike them with physical and emotional resonance. The good old ostentatious spending may longer be sustainable any more (vanity still sells, but not in a sustainable way). Be empathetic and creative.
In short, it is a time to spend extra efforts truly knowing your young customers/prospects. Get in their shoes first, feel their struggle and goals. Give them hope (not just marketing) now so they could (hopefully) come back to you in the future.
In the next post, we will share our in-depth look into how Chinoiserie plays a momentum-making role in shaping Chinese youth's value, lifestyle and spending decisions. Stay tuned!