The Urban Chinese Consumer
Behaviour, Attitudes and Perceptions Toward
International Markets Bureau
MARKET ANALYSIS REPORT | APRIL 2010
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INSIDE THIS REPORT
- CHINA—EMERGING OPPORTUNITIES
- CHINA IN BRIEF
- GLOBAL TRADE POSITION
- CANADA'S TRADE RELATIONSHIP WITH CHINA
- CONSUMPTION AND EXPENDITURES
- KEY RESOURCES
Over many centuries, China has evolved from an agrarian economy into a modern society, characterized by technological advances and international influences. Today, new agri-food opportunities are emerging as China's economy, political environment and socioeconomic reality continue to change. Chinese consumers are now poised to develop new tastes and demand more global food.
Chinese consumers are both savvy and discerning, however, they tend to exhibit preferences and behaviours that are rooted in the rich cultural traditions of China's past.
With the world's largest population and a vast and varied geographical area, the characteristics of China and its population are diverse. Centuries of adaptation have created a wide range of lifestyles and behaviours, particularly in densely-populated urban areas. As a result, it is not practical to treat the population of China as a single consumer market. For this reason, this report is focused on the behaviours and attitudes of urban consumers in Mainland China only.
CHINA IN BRIEF
China's complex and unsettled past has been shaped by a varied range of influences, from feudal warlords to socialism. Throughout China's long and sometimes turbulent history, the one constant has been food. Food has always played an important role in society, from banquets marking the birth of a child to celebrations of regional or national importance. The common greeting in China is not "How are you?" but "Have you eaten yet?" This question dates back to times when food was in short supply and people often went hungry.
In terms of physical size, China is the world's fourth largest country, following Russia, Canada and the United States (US) (The World Fact Book, 2009). It is divided into several administrative divisions: 23 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, and 4 municipalities. In addition, there are two special administrative regions—Hong Kong and Macau.
China borders on several countries, including India, Mongolia, Russia, Laos, Kazakhstan, North Korea and Vietnam. Its coasts rest on several seas, including the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea and the South China Sea. As a result, the climate is very diverse, ranging from tropical in the south, to sub-arctic in the north, making the country subject to droughts, floods, and frequent typhoons. Climate change and urban sprawl are expected to shrink crop yields and the amount of available farmland, which will in turn reduce the country's domestic food supply (Reuters, August 22, 2007).
The Chinese government has encouraged investment in the rural economy and the agricultural sector is growing at approximately 3% per year. The government growth target for the agricultural sector is just over 5% annually. However, due to environmental challenges, such as the desertification of arable land and drought, growth has been slower than expected.
"Be born in Suzhou
Live in Hangzhou
Eat in Guangzhou
Die in Liuzhou"
GLOBAL TRADE POSITION
China boasts the world's second largest economy. Agriculture accounts for nearly 11% of that economy and employs more than 40% of the labour force. China is a major exporter and importer of agri-food products, as well as the world's largest exporter of seafood products, making it a market with many opportunities for Canadian agri-business.
- China is a net importer of agri-food and seafood products. In 2008, its agri-food and seafood trade deficit was over US $18 billion. China's agri-food and seafood imports have been growing over the past five years at an average of 21% a year (Global Trade Atlas, 2009).
- China's key agri-food and seafood imports in 2008 were soybeans, cotton, refined palm oil, crude soybean oil, and wool. Key suppliers in 2008 were the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Malaysia and Australia.
- Major processed food imports in China include: palm oil, soybean oil, fish meal, beef hides and frozen fish. Malaysia, the United States and Argentina are the largest suppliers of processed food to China, accounting for approximately 41% of China's processed food imports (Global Trade Atlas 2009).
CANADA'S TRADE RELATIONSHIP WITH CHINA
There is great growth potential for high-quality Canadian food products among discerning Chinese consumers. China is an increasingly important trading partner of Canada and is Canada's fourth largest export market for general merchandise products. In 2008, these exports totalled $10.5 billion and accounted for over 2% of overall exports, up from $4.8 billion in 2003.
China is also an important export market for Canadian agri-food and fish and seafood. In 2008, exports to China of agri-food products exceeded $1.5 billion, up from $400 million in 2003. China was Canada's fourth largest export market for agri-food products, accounting for almost 4% of Canada's total agri-food exports.
Canada's exports of fish and seafood to China are also important but have shown less rapid growth than exports of agri-food products. In 2008, Canada exported $258 million in fish and seafood products to China, up from $255 million in 2003. This accounted for 7% of Canada's total fish and seafood exports, making China Canada's third largest export market for fish and seafood products.
- Canada's top agri-food and seafood exports to China were canola seeds, canola oil, snow crabs, soybeans, and peas.
- Canada registered an agri-food trade surplus of CAD $0.9 billion with China.
- Canada's top agri-food and seafood imports from China include: apple juice, frozen fish meat, frozen shrimp, mushrooms and sole fillets (Statistics Canada 2009).
- Processed food imports continued a five year growth trend and reached US $25 billion.
- Canada supplied approximately three percent of China's processed food imports.
China is the world's most populous country. As of July 2009, China's population is estimated to have reached almost 1.34 billion, which would account for approximately one fifth of the world's population (The World Fact Book, 2009).
Approximately 43% of the total population live in urban areas, and this figure continues to grow. Furthermore, it is estimated that there are approximately 65 million young urban consumers, aged from 20 to 39, who are attracted to Western brands and can be influenced by advertising (A.T. Kearney, 2007).
Some of the world's most populous cities and most densely populated regions are found in China. While the most populated cities are not always found in the most densely populated regions, four major Chinese cities are located in densely populated regions. In 2007, there were almost a dozen cities whose total populations numbered over 5 million, including Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin and Chongqing. These four cities are also located in regions considered to be among those with the highest total populations in China (Table 1) (Economy Watch).
|City & Corresponding Region||Total Urban Population (in millions)||Total Population (in millions)|
Source: Economy Watch, China Population, Chinese Population
Since the 1970's, population growth in China has been governed by its state family planning policy which limits each couple of marriageable age to one child, with specific exceptions for families living in rural areas and those areas heavily populated by ethnic minority groups (White Paper on Population in China). The one-child policy is frequently circumvented by more affluent parents, who can afford to pay penalties/fines imposed by the state (Boumphrey, 2007).
As China has traditionally been a male-oriented society, the initial implementation of the one-child policy has resulted in a larger proportion of male children than female. A study by the British Medical Journal shows that in 2005, there were 32 million more males under the age of 20 than females (McDonald, 2009). While female births may have been under-reported, the study projects that this gap will persist for the next two decades. Thus, males under the age of 20 will play an important role in determining food preferences.
While the family planning policy has been successful in slowing China's booming growth, statistics also show that China's population is aging. The estimated median age as of 2009 is 34.1 years—33.5 years for men, and 34.7 years for women.
The population of children under age 14 decreased from 324 million in 1996 to 238 million in 2007. Although overall population growth has decreased, the proportion of elderly persons is becoming an issue of concern as there will be too few workers to support the aging population. Table 2 summarizes the breakdown of the population by gender and age group.
|Age Range||% of Population||# of Males||# of Females|
|65 years and over||8.1%||51,774,115||56,764,042|
Source: The World Fact Book, China (June 2009), estimates for 2009
The United Nations predicts that by 2050, China will have 101 million people aged 80 or over, compared to 43 million in India and 32 million in the US (Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat).
The improved life expectancy of the rapidly growing elderly population presents a challenge to the health care system. It is expected that the average life expectancy will be 73 years by 2010, as opposed to 36.5 years in 1949, the year the People's Republic of China was founded (National Human Rights Action Plan of China, 2009-2010; China.Org.Cn, January 7, 2008; People's Daily Online, April 13, 2009).
Given these demographics, food that is geared to maintaining healthy lifestyles can be expected to play a greater role in the food marketplace.
The Chinese population is composed of 56 ethnic groups that have been identified and recognized by the government to date, of which the Han ethnic group is the largest. The remaining 55 groups in aggregate form a much smaller population and are commonly referred to as "ethnic minorities".
The fifth national census conducted in 2000 indicated that the combined population of the 55 ethnic minority groups totalled 104.49 million, or approximately 8.41% of the country's total population (Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, 2005).
The distribution of these ethnic populations varies widely.
- The largest group, the Zhuang, consists of an estimated 16 million people spread over 3 provinces.
- The Hui account for almost 10 million people and its population is spread over 19 provinces.
- The smallest group, the Lhoba, numbers just under 3,000, all of whom live in Tibet.
- In all, 18 ethnic minorities have populations greater than 1 million people, while 20 have populations numbering less than 100,000, of which 7 groups number less than 10,000 people (Lai, 2009).
The official national language, Mandarin (also known as Putonghua) is the most commonly used language in China and one of the most commonly used languages in the world. However, there are a number of other languages spoken in China by minority groups, as all but two have their own language.
In order to ensure equality among its ethnic groups, the Chinese government adopted special policies and measures to recognize their unique languages and cultures. As a result, national marketing activities using only the Mandarin language will not be effective in some areas, particularly in those rural areas which are home to ethnic minority groups.
One of the goals of the one-child policy was to improve the education system. Since 1950, China has implemented a nine-year compulsory education program in 90% of its populated areas (Chinese Government's Official Web Portal). In that time period, illiteracy in young and middle-aged people has seen a marked decrease, from over 80% down to 5%.
The current goal is that by 2020, of every 100,000 people, 13,500 will have had junior college education or above and 31,000 will have had senior high school education; the rates for illiteracy and semi-literacy will fall below 3%; and the average duration of schooling across the population will increase from 8 years to nearly 11 (Education Development, Chinese Government's Official Web Portal).
China Economic Net reports that a record 10.5 million students wrote the national college entrance exams in 2008, however, only approximately half will be admitted. This is a major factor contributing to the high number of Chinese students studying abroad (Education Development, Chinese Government's Official Web Portal). This international experience exposes students to new tastes and food products and may foster greater acceptance of these products among the younger demographic, making them more open to imported foods.
Furthermore, women are becoming better educated than in the past and are gaining financial independence (The Nielsen Company). They are, therefore, a potential driving force for food product demand in the future.
Unlike the West, many unmarried children in their 20's and 30's are still living with their parents, and this group has a significantly higher disposable income than if they were living on their own.
Since 1995, three-person households have become more popular in China. Homes shared by four or more people have decreased, while the number of one and two-person households increased dramatically between 1995 and 2007, by 95% and 74%, respectively. There is a trend toward young, single men and women trying to make a living in big cities, in contrast to the traditional family lifestyle that is more the norm in rural areas (Euromonitor, November 2008).
These changes in household composition have also created a market opportunity for premium food and lifestyle products, and luxury designer goods that parents and these young adults living at home are more financially able and willing to purchase.
The Computer Age
Greater availability of a variety of lifestyle products is also influencing consumers. At the end of 2007, there were, on average, 95 refrigerators, 153 microwave ovens, 38 colour television sets, 91 telephones, 165 mobile telephone units, and 54 computers for every 100 households (National Bureau of Statistics of China).
The increasing reach of online media provides opportunities to create awareness and promote new food product offerings.
- Computer ownership in China has seen great uptake, increasing from approximately 10 per 100 urban households in 1990, to 54 in 2007.
- Internet usage in China has also increased sharply, from 1.7% of the population in 2000, to 25.3% in 2009 according to Internet World Stats.
- Increased internet usage appears to be accompanied by opportunities for online sales. Taobao is China's combination of eBay and Amazon, and is described in the New York Times as "China's fast-growing online shopping bazaar". Its popularity and free ads have helped create thriving new online stores (Barboza, 2009).
- In early 2009, China Polling's small study on fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) indicated that only 2.5% of internet customers refused to purchase groceries online, while 60.6% of consumers were frequent online buyers or were willing to buy online in the future (Chou, 2009).
- A 2008 consumer survey of online media vehicles, which included online advertisements, product articles, blogs and forums, showed that the internet is increasingly being used as a marketing tool. In fact, the study showed that blogs and online forums were seen as more credible than traditional television advertisements (Dixit, et al, McKinsey & Company, 2008).
Credibility will be an important factor for businesses to establish brand awareness and to effectively promote the safety and special features of their products to Chinese consumers.
Lifestyle & Health
Chinese consumers are becoming more affluent and this is influencing both lifestyle and diet in China. In 2007, the population of High Net Worth Individuals1 (HNWI) in China grew by 20.3%, the second-highest rate of growth in the Asia-Pacific region. India had the highest rate of growth at 22.7%, followed closely by South Korea in third place at 18.9% (Merrill Lynch/Capgemini, 2008). This rapidly-growing level of affluence provides consumers with the means, and often the desire, to purchase a wider variety of foods and consumer goods—a marked change from only decades ago when availability and supply were controlled by government.
Veeck and Veeck (2000) observed an increased consumption of convenience foods, especially Western-style convenience foods, including meals-away-from-home and processed and pre-packaged products for home use. As a result, there is potential for food products that are available in smaller portion sizes, particularly those that offer convenience to the consumer.
Gale and Huang attribute the rapid growth in supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants to the desire for convenience, in addition to the growing preference for quality over quantity.
1 Capgemini defines HWNIs as those holding at least $1M US in financial assets while Ultra-HWNIs hold at least $30M US, excluding primary residences, collectibles, consumables and consumer durables.
The increasing usage of refrigerators and microwave ovens, along with the increasing popularity of international food brands such as Kraft and Nestlé, indicates the potential for a growing acceptance of convenience and ready-to-eat foods. The increasing popularity of refrigerators and microwave ovens has made it easier to store and prepare frozen or ready-to-eat convenience foods.
Similar to developed countries, the increasing affluence of China's population, accompanied by the increased availability of fast food, appears to be leading to rising rates of obesity and overweight (Zhang et al, 2008). Today, almost one in five children under age seven is overweight, and more than 7% are obese. Among Chinese adults, more than 25% are now considered to be overweight or obese (Hepeng, July 2008), compared to 7% in the early 1990s, as noted by the Chinese Health and Nutrition Surveys 1993 (cited by Youfa Wang, International Journal of Epidemiology 2001;30:1129-1136).
The traditional Chinese image of prosperity and wealth has been associated with a plump physique, which in ancient times could only be achieved through an abundance of food, made possible by a good income. Much to the detriment of the "little emperors" and "little empresses", this belief is still prevalent among many of their grandparents' generation. As a result, some of these children are consuming much more food than would have been possible in the past.
Growing rates of obesity cannot be attributed solely to the increased consumption of western or fast food. In the wake of the economic boom, Chinese consumers are enjoying a wider variety of both fresh and processed foods of domestic and international origins. Changes in the traditional diet, such as the increased consumption of fats, oils, and meat products, and decreased consumption of grains, have been accompanied by an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.
In the long term, obesity and poor diet will increase pressure on the health system, as obesity-related health problems, such as hypertension, stroke and adult-onset diabetes, emerge among the aging Chinese population.
Despite this, the Chinese have a long history of being health conscious and the aging population tends to eat for health. Medicinal cooking and diet have long been used to prevent or heal illness, and maintain or enhance health. However, some of these dishes require extended cooking times. As time is in short supply in modern life, many households do not or cannot take the time required to prepare such meals. Health-oriented food products that are more convenient to prepare or that can reduce cooking times could find acceptance with consumers.
Educating consumers about specific attributes of new food products or ingredients could help to establish a market for premium food products geared toward the health-conscious Chinese consumer.
China is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In June 2009, the World Bank raised its estimate for the growth of China's gross domestic product from its March estimate of 6.5% to 7.2% (World Bank, June 2009).
Faced with a global economic downturn, China's State Council approved a plan to invest four trillion yuan (approximately US $570 billion) in domestic infrastructure and social welfare in 2009 and 2010 (Xinhuanet, November 2008). This domestic stimulus package was announced in November 2008 and was intended to help maintain domestic financial stability, capital market stability and economic growth as China's contribution toward alleviating the international financial crisis (Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang, Press Conference, November 11, 2008).
The stimulus plan would finance programs in 10 major areas, such as housing, rural infrastructure, water, electricity, transportation, environment, health and education, industry, and disaster rebuilding (e.g., the May 12 earthquake), as well as cutting taxes and loosening credit conditions (Xinhuanet, November 2008; China Economic Net, November 2008).
The continued growth of China's economy is expected to translate into continued increasing purchasing power of Chinese consumers. A.T. Kearney (2007) estimates that the growing middle class spends an increasing amount on food, with annual sales of branded food products expected to grow from US $150 billion to US $650 billion by 2017. This growth is anticipated to be in traditional areas such as baked goods, soft drinks, fast food, and alcohol, as well as from the introduction of new areas that may be found in larger retail establishments and not in local markets and smaller retail outlets. This would provide opportunities for both food manufacturers and retailers.
In an effort to raise quality and safety standards, given recent food safety issues, the State Council Information Office published a White Paper entitled, "The Quality and Safety of Food in China". Released in 2007, this document outlines the initiatives being undertaken to improve and maintain the quality and safety of food produced for domestic and international consumption.
The nature of the food supply is also evolving. In the past, food and its distribution was the subject of strict central planning. Today, the food supply is being influenced by "markets and private enterprise intent on satisfying the increasingly discerning and sophisticated tastes of Chinese consumers" (Gale, June 2003).
In 1992, the China Green Food Development Centre was created as a specialized agency of the Ministry of Agriculture to oversee the national development and production of "Green Food".
- Green Food includes edible produce and processed goods. The production, processing, packing, storage, and transportation of these goods are strictly controlled and regulated.
- The Green Food program represents the first steps in the evolution of organic agriculture practices in China. The resulting products are characterized as being safe and of good quality, as well as having been produced in a sustainable and non-polluting manner.
- These products are identified by a special logo which is managed by the Trademark Law of The People's Republic of China (China Green Food Development Center).
CONSUMPTION AND EXPENDITURES
Today's Chinese consumer is more aware of trends and new products and is more willing to experiment with new tastes and foods. A Datamonitor study found that 83% of Chinese consumers felt that it was important to find more excitement and sensations in life, compared to a global average of 64%. Furthermore, 44% of Chinese consumers had tried food and drinks with new and exotic flavours within the six months leading up to the study, as opposed to 30% of global consumers (Datamonitor, DMCM4693, July 2009).
Consumers in the highest income groups are willing to spend more on higher quality food products and so the growing middle and upper classes are a potential market for premium food products. Datamonitor found that 67% of those surveyed had purchased higher quality food and beverages than their normal choices in the previous six months. This trading up of food and beverage purchases seems to indicate good growth prospects for such products.
Chinese women are an important demographic group as far as food consumption is concerned. It is estimated that women in China hold about 60% of spending power and that they determine 78% of daily purchases in households (Zamchek, 2008). The influence of female consumers is being felt not only in their own homes, but also in the homes of their parents when they live in the same house or neighbourhood (Rein, 2009).
Mindful of the economic situation, Chinese women are becoming more discerning in their shopping habits by cutting back on impulse purchases and doing more product research, often online, prior to purchasing. Rein notes that the China Market Research Group found that some of these shoppers, as mothers, were willing to spend approximately 20% more for food products, clothing and related toiletry items for their babies if they were fully confident that those products were safe. It is estimated that 83% of Chinese middle-class consumers are willing to pay more for safe food products (A.T. Kearney). In addition, consumers indicated that they trusted foreign brands more than domestic ones, as foreign companies were perceived to be less likely to cut corners in the production and quality control process (Rein, 2009).
Little Emperors and Empresses
The widespread poverty of the past stands in stark contrast to the increasing number of high-income individuals in China today. These consumers have the means and desire for the best foods and consumer goods. Furthermore, parents are increasingly able to indulge their children in a wide variety of high quality goods, and in great quantities. As a result of its rapidly improving economy, this situation has created a generation of indulged only-children, commonly referred to in China as little emperors" and "little empresses," as their demands greatly impact the household.
China's strict family planning policy has affected household composition. The standard family structure often consists of four grandparents, two parents and one child – in essence, several adults and one child on which to lavish attention and consumer goods.
The power of the "little emperors" and "little empresses" is reflected in the purchasing patterns of modern households. A similar trend can be seen in many countries, however, this is particularly marked when taking in to consideration the history of the country, the fairly recent years of famine and food rationing, which have now been replaced by the economic boom of the past few decades.
The Nielsen Company has noted a global convergence of teen values with respect to consumerism, materialism, openness to new ideas and cultures, and enjoyment of life, and China is no exception (The Nielsen Company). As the "little emperors"/ "little empresses" grow up, these tweens and young adults constitute an emerging consumer group that is young, educated, increasingly sophisticated and technologically savvy. They also possess the financial means and desire to indulge in new products and experiences. More and more, these consumers use the internet and mobile devices to find product information, discounts and coupons, providing marketing opportunities that may have more resonance than traditional advertising media. This younger generation is looking for new and innovative products and taste experiences, as well as healthy and affordable food offerings (Chandler, 2004; Zamchek, 2008).
The shopping influence of adult women who grew up as "little empresses" now extends further than in previous generations. With the benefits of better education, women's contribution to household income has increased from approximately 20% in the 1950s to about 50% today. In addition, as the sole care-providers for aging parents, their influence is often felt in the purchasing decisions of their parents, when they live in the same house or neighbourhood (Rein, 2009).
- In general, urban residents have higher disposable incomes and living standards, spending more on packaged and branded food (Li & Fung Research Centre, 2005).
- Changes in consumption of traditional staple foods (grains and vegetable oils) have accompanied changes in consumer spending power. As household income increases, the percentage of income spent on food decreases. On average, 36% of household income is spent on food, but this can range from 47%, for the lowest income group, to 28% for the highest (National Bureau of Statistics of China).
- Chinese consumers are highly focused on value. That is to say, that value-for-money is a very important factor in purchasing decisions. Despite increases in incomes and the desire for premium products, the quality of these products must merit the price in the consumer's mind for a sale to occur (AP-Food Technology.com, April 2004).
- In 2008, there was significant growth in packaged food sales at 11%, based on current prices. The growth rates for the next two years are forecasted to be 14.5% in 2009 and 13.7% in 2010 (Euromonitor).
- The proportion of income spent on clothing (10%), residence (10%), household facilities, articles and services (6%), health care and medical services (7%) and miscellaneous goods and services (4%) is relatively consistent across all income groups (Figure 1). In addition to food (36%), spending on transportation and communications (14%) and education, cultural and recreation services (13%), tends to vary more widely as income changes. However, spending in these latter categories tends to increase with higher income levels (Figure 2).
- China's rapid economic growth, the growing affluence of its consumers and increased urbanization are driving the country's changing consumption patterns. Diets appear to be shifting away from staples and are broadening to include more poultry, eggs, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, fish, and fats and oils (Figures 3 and 4) (Pingali, 2004; Gale, June 2003).
- Consumers are demanding a wider variety of food products, more processed food and more convenient food, in addition to eating out more often.
- As a result, food retailing is moving from small traditional farmers' markets and corner kiosks to modern "hypermarkets", convenience stores and fast-food restaurants (Gale, 2006).
According to a Datamonitor study, Chinese consumers viewed saving money, lower prices and overall product quality to be of significant or high importance in grocery shopping. However, product quality was viewed to be of higher importance than lower prices or saving money (67%, 46% and 52%, respectively). Overall global results appeared to rank all three factors to be of similar importance, although lower prices in general ranked slightly lower than saving money or product quality (62%, 73% and 72%, respectively).
Just as quality is of high importance, it is interesting to note that 89% of the consumers surveyed in China viewed the accumulation of material possessions or wealth to be important or very important. This contrasts sharply with 48% of global consumers. After years of famine and rationing, material possessions are viewed as evidence of high social status and, as such, are very highly sought after (Datamonitor, DMCM 4693, July 2009).
Influence of Brand
While being seen wearing brand name clothing is important, the importance of brand extends to shopping for food products. In its Global Consumer Trends 2009: Sensory report, Datamonitor found that Chinese consumers were highly influenced by habit or their preferred brand when shopping for food or beverage products. Brand loyalty or brand image scored much higher (4th of 14 factors evaluated) versus the global average (12th of 14 factors).
The influence of habit extends to the choice of shopping venue. The majority of consumers in the study showed that habit plays an important role in the choice of grocery store—84% admitted that habit had a high or medium influence in this choice.
After much effort, international food companies such as Kraft, Heinz, and Nestlé have achieved success in the Chinese market. Although these brand names are well-known in the Western world, the journey into the Chinese market has not been easy due to consumer loyalty to domestic brands. However, as a result of past food safety and quality issues related to some domestic brands, Chinese consumers are now more inclined to purchase imported goods as they are perceived to be of higher quality and safety.
Chinese consumers, although accepting of foreign brand name products, have not extended this acceptance to private label products. A Nielsen Company study showed that 8 of the bottom 10 markets for private label products were Asian countries. Consumers surveyed in these countries were least likely to agree that 'supermarket own' labels were a good alternative to other brands.
Major well -known multinational and local brands with strong brand recognition, supported by heavy advertising, have made successful inroads with Chinese consumers. However, this is not the case for private label products, as consumers seem to doubt their quality, safety and value-for-money. Consumer education and advertising that stresses the high quality and safety of private label products may help to gain public support and increase their sales.
A Matter of Taste
It is important to note that food products that are popular in Western countries may not be immediately accepted in China, as Chinese tastes are quite different from those of North American consumers. While familiar tastes and foods are more readily accepted, inroads have been made by consumer education campaigns, and consumer taste testing/sampling (Sánchez, Lei, Han, and Chandlee, 2009; Marr and Hatfield, 2004).
For example, according to the Wall Street Journal, Oreo cookies are the top-selling cookie in the US market. However, the introduction of Oreo cookies to China was initially lacklustre. The taste so familiar to North Americans was considered too sweet by most Chinese consumers. After reformulating the cookie, Kraft embarked on a marketing campaign to introduce the concept of pairing cookies with milk to consumers, and handing out samples of Oreos by students on bicycle or at Oreo-themed basketball games (Jargon, May 2008).
From wet markets to hypermarkets, the shopping experience in China has evolved dramatically over the past decades. In the days before the wide availability of refrigerators, the lack of cold storage meant that food was purchased a few times a day—just enough for one meal at a time. Today, Chinese consumers continue to place great importance on the freshness and quality of ingredients, which are often purchased in close proximity to one's residence from a variety of farmers' markets, wet markets, street vendors, and grocery stores. Most cooking is still done with fresh food purchased on the same day it is to be consumed.
Today in China, as in the West, hypermarkets are making an appearance on the retailing scene. Hypermarkets are large retail establishments that combine the features of supermarkets and department stores in one location.
The attraction of hypermarkets can be attributed to low prices, convenient one-stop shopping, accessible locations, and the integration of other retail facilities such as restaurants, cinemas and coffee houses, which turn a shopping trip into a day's excursion. According to TNS China, China's middle class consumers visit hypermarkets once every 10 days, on average. As of mid-2007, hypermarkets accounted for more than 45% value share of the grocery sector in Shanghai, and TNS China predicts that by the end of the decade, the hypermarket share of the value of China's grocery sector will increase to 35% from 19.7% in 2001 (TNS China, September 2007).
Foreign retail chains such as Tesco, Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Metro are now established names in China. For example, on July 9, 2009, Carrefour China opened its 138th Carrefour Hypermarket in Kunming City (Carrefour China). Domestic supermarket chains, such as Lianhua, Hualian and Wumart, are also well-known. Nevertheless, the majority of people still buy food at local stores and traditional street markets, especially in rural areas where supermarkets do not exist (Tesco; AgrifoodAsia; Williams, 2007).
One of the major challenges to food distribution in China is the infrastructure. Too few cold storage facilities for warehousing foods and insufficient temperature-controlled transport limit the availability of frozen and perishable food products in retail outlets. While the use of refrigerators continues to grow, the ability of consumers to purchase and store high-value frozen and perishable foods continues to be limited, both by cost and by the availability of reliable electricity (Gale, 2002).
What is a wet market?
Traditional, local, open-air, street markets are known as wet markets. The name likely refers to the floors of the markets, which often become wet from food spilled in the selling or transportation process and are sprayed with water for cleaning. Along with fresh fruit and vegetables from local farms, one can usually buy meat, eggs, tofu, grains, pickled radishes, and spices, in addition to live fish and fowl.
Food is sold from a series of vendor stalls and usually comes straight from the farm or butcher. Freshness is the paramount consideration for most Chinese consumers, and 'live' is often the equivalent of 'fresh', as far as certain items are concerned. Customers are also attracted to the markets for the wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables available. Shopping at wet markets is also a social experience. This is where local residents meet to exchange gossip and local news. Vendors are always ready to provide advice on how to prepare one's daily purchases, or to suggest foods based on what one has previously purchased (Urbanatomy.com; Bean, 2006).
For small purchases, convenience stores are still a popular choice for many Chinese consumers. Longer business hours and proximity to residential areas appeal to many, along with the availability of snack foods, drinks, ready-to-eat food, and lunch boxes, as well as a wide variety of fresh and packaged food (Li & Fung Research Centre).
Consumption Tastes and Preferences
A rough translation of a frequently-quoted Chinese poem says:
"Be born in Suzhou
Live in Hangzhou
Eat in Guangzhou
Die in Liuzhou"
The translation is rather literal, however, its overall meaning reflects a popular Chinese view of the ideal life. Suzhou is famous for the physical beauty of its people; Hangzhou is reputed to be one of the most beautiful cities in China; Guangzhou is world-famous for its delicious Cantonese cuisine; and Liuzhou is renowned for the fine quality of its wooden coffins which, in Chinese folklore, were believed to preserve the body after death.
As this poem suggests, food plays an important role in the culture of the Chinese people. Even the most basic of dishes can be elevated in the eyes of the consumer through the use of higher quality ingredients that are not normally eaten throughout the year.
Food and Special Occasions
For special occasions, the courses of a meal or the ingredients used in the dishes often take on special significance by the use of word play in their names, or the symbolism of dishes served. For example, a New Year's meal commonly includes a dish featuring a seaweed called fa cai or 'Black Moss'. The name fa cai sounds similar to some of the words in the traditional New Year's greeting, Gong Xi Fa Cai, which is a wish for good fortune and prosperity. A New Year's meal may also include a whole fish, which symbolizes prosperity or abundance, as well as dried oysters, which represent good business—qualities that are seen as essential for the coming year.
In some parts of China, a birthday meal would not be complete without a serving of long noodles which are symbolic of long life. The celebration of a baby's birth often includes eggs that have been dyed red—eggs symbolize fertility and the colour red denotes good luck and happiness.
Fine dining establishments will often name their dishes in honour of a place or event, or will give them symbolic names evoking wishes for good fortune and health. Peking Duck is known around the world, and Ma Po Tofu was given international exposure on the Japanese television series, "Iron Chef". The name of another popular Chinese dish means literally "Buddha Jumps Over the Wall". According to folklore, the dish was thus named because it was so fragrant that Buddha could not resist jumping a wall to find out what it was.
Chinese belief is based on the idea of balance—balance between yin and yang, light and dark, and hot and cold. This principle applies to life and health in general, thus it also applies to Chinese cooking which strives to achieve balance in its cuisine.
For example, the city of Guangzhou, the home of Cantonese cooking, is located in a warm region of China. For this reason, Cantonese food is not overly yang or "warm", so as not to upset the delicate balance of one's body. It tends to be lighter in flavour and substance in the summer and autumn when the weather is warmest, and of slightly more substance in the winter and spring when temperatures are cooler. Hot and spicy foods, on the other hand, are commonly consumed in the northern region of China, as well as in the west, where the cold, humid weather and high altitude warrant more warmth in the cuisine.
Regional diets are, by necessity, based primarily on the local availability of agricultural products. Rice is widely grown in southern regions, thus rice, congee (rice porridge) and rice noodles are main staple foods of southern and eastern China. While rice is popular in the south, wheat is more commonly available and eaten in the north, in the form of noodles, man tao (steamed buns) and dumplings.
The cuisine of China is usually characterized by eight distinct regions of four geographical areas: Shandong, Sichuan, Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan, and Anhui. The cuisines of Shanghai and Beijing are also sometimes included in general discussions of Chinese cuisine. The following is a brief summary of the characteristics of the diverse cuisines found in these regions (China Guide, Travelchinaguide):
Guangdong (Cantonese) cuisine
- Cantonese cuisine is characterized by its use of a wide variety of fresh ingredients available in its mild climate. Fresh produce is available throughout the year, and its position on the southern coast of China supplies a wide variety of fish and shellfish.
- Fresh, tender, light and crisp textures, as well as natural flavours, form the basis of each dish.
- Basic cooking techniques employed include roasting, stir-frying, deep-frying, braising, stewing, and steaming. Stir-frying and steaming are most frequently used to preserve the natural flavours of the ingredients.
- Sichuan cuisine is world-renowned for its spicy-hot taste and the flavour of Chinese prickly ash (Sichuan pepper). The distinctive spicy taste is achieved through the generous use of chillies, hot peppers, and heavy aromatic and spicy sauces. Garlic, ginger and fermented soybean are also popular seasonings.
- Frying, frying without oil, pickling and braising are among the basic cooking techniques employed.
- Shallots and garlic provide the pungent flavours that characterize these dishes.
- Jinan chefs employ deep-frying, grilling, pan-frying, and stir-frying techniques, while chefs on the Jiaodong peninsula emphasize fresh and light flavours, particularly with seafood.
- Shandong cuisine is clean, pure and not greasy. It emphasizes aroma, freshness, crispness, and tenderness.
- This cuisine stresses the use of oil and dense colour. It contrasts the textures of crispness, softness, and tenderness.
- Hunan dishes are known for their thick, pungent, savoury, flavours and for the use of chili, pepper, and shallots.
- Cabbage and chicken are widely consumed.
- The influences of Yangzhou, Suzhou and Nanjing are found in this cuisine.
- Jiangsu cuisine stresses the use of fresh fish and crustaceans.
- Braising and stewing are the main cooking techniques employed, and Jiangsu chefs are renowned for their delicate and complex carving techniques, particularly melon carving.
- Zhejiang cuisine is characterized by the influences of its main cities—including, Ningbo's softness and originality and Hangzhou's custom of naming dishes in honour of places known for their beauty.
- A variety of cooking techniques are used, such as frying, stir-frying, braising, and steaming. Dishes are not greasy, and are known for freshness, tenderness, softness, and smoothness, as well as a mellow fragrance.
- Fine cutting techniques, dishes served in soup, unique seasonings, and the exquisite cooking of dishes are characteristics of Fujian cuisine (What's On Xiamen, 2008).
- Fujian cuisine is determined by a combination of Fuzhou, Quanzhou, and Xiamen cuisines. It is known for its seafood, colour presentation, and taste combina-tions of sweet, sour, salt, and savoury, as well as its distinctive "pickled taste".
- The local flavours of Huizhou and the areas along the Yangtze and Huai Rivers are the main influences on this cuisine.
- Cooking techniques favour braising and stewing over frying or quick-frying.
- Ham is a popular seasoning, and candied sugar is often added for freshness.
Vegetarian diets also play a role in Chinese food culture. Two religions with long histories in China, Buddhism and Taoism, remain strong influences in the area of vegetarian dining. Rice, noodles, and vegetables are well suited to meatless cooking. Ironically, many famous vegetarian dishes are prepared with gluten pieces that are often cooked and flavoured to resemble meat. Chinese vegetarian cuisine also often features vegetables, fruits, edible fungi, and bean products.
There are other religious groups in China that observe dietary restrictions as well. Chinese Muslims in the western and northern areas of China have developed a unique cuisine, with bread and noodles preferred over rice. While pork is not allowed for religious reasons, lamb is commonly eaten as instant-boiled mutton, fried mutton pieces, and fried rice with mutton (Embassy).
Eating for Health
Health has long been an important factor influencing Chinese cooking. Chinese Medicinal Cuisine, also known as therapeutic food, is a long-standing tradition, wherein food is prepared with medicinal ingredients, following the theory of Chinese medicine. This cuisine is eaten for therapeutic reasons or eaten in the belief that it will protect, prevent or heal disease. Food therapies have been developed by master chefs over the years by combining basic cooking techniques with traditional Chinese medicinal ingredients. One basic therapy that is shared by many other cultures is that of treating colds or fevers with soup (TravelChinaGuide.com). The use of chicken soup as a folk remedy is known around the world, albeit anecdotally. Some of the more frequently-used ingredients of Chinese Medicinal Cuisine are becoming increasingly popular in other parts of the world, such as goji berries, ginseng, gingko nuts, and tofu.
Consistent with this concept, some people in China consume foods with specific health and wellness objectives in mind. Chinese women, particularly in Shanghai, are very cognizant of the reputed health benefits of certain foods. Some common health objectives linked to food choices are:
- ensuring good skin through cleansing and detoxification,
- regulating digestion,
- improving overall appearance, and
- regulating hormonal cycles (Zamchek, 2008).
Meals are often enjoyed "family style", where courses are served from communal dishes in the centre of the table, and everyone helps themselves. Steamed white rice is often the main staple food, accompanying all the courses. The rice also helps absorb the flavourful sauces of the accompanying dishes for the diner's enjoyment.
In historic times of famine or food shortages, rice was often the only food available. The poor could not buy meat or vegetables and so would eat rice to fill the belly, if they could afford it. Only the rich had the means to dine on meat and vegetables in addition to rice. As a reminder of these harsher times, some people have adopted a cooking ritual wherein they cook a small piece of meat or vegetable with the steamed rice. This is a symbolic gesture suggesting that there will always be enough food to have an accompanying dish with their rice.
With respect to food ingredients, statistics show an overall decrease in purchases of grains and fresh vegetables from 1990 to 2007 (Figure 5). However, the purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables have increased for urban households over the same time period (Curtis, McCluskey, and Wahl, 2007).
Gale and Huang also found that the consumption of meats, poultry, fish, dairy products, and fruit increased as incomes rose, however, consumption of traditional staple grains remained stable or declined (Figure 6). In the case of meats, the demand would increase to a certain point beyond which it remained relatively stable. This is likely the result of consumer demand for premium products–higher prices and better quality–not necessarily more quantity. While this is true for consumers in the top income brackets, those at the lower income levels do show a corresponding increase in their purchase of meat, dairy products, and beer (Gale & Huang, 2007).
- As noted by Marr and Hatfield (2004), the popularity of snacking has increased greatly. Meals are rarely skipped, and snack foods are usually eaten on impulse. Snacking and eating on-the-go is increasingly popular among younger consumers, particularly in Shanghai, which is reputed to have the greatest density of convenience stores in the world, with one 24-hour convenience store for every 2,600 residents, compared to one per 3,045 people in Japan and one per 2,940 people in the US (Zamchek, 2008). In Shanghai alone, consumers spend approximately 9% of their total grocery bill on snack foods (Marr and Hatfield, 2004).
- Western snacks are increasingly popular. Products such as Hershey's Kisses, Pringles potato chips, Cadbury chocolate and Wrigley's gum have found favour with Chinese consumers, however, snacks based on traditional cultural preferences are more readily accepted. These include shrimp-, pork- or chicken-flavoured snacks, dried plums, dried cuttlefish and shrimp, dried and preserved fruits, dried meats, seeds and nuts, and prawn crackers (Marr and Hatfield, 2004).
- As with other premium food products, the Shanghainese, in particular, are interested in value for their money, preferring well-known brand names and smaller packages, except for gift items (Marr and Hatfield, 2004). Furthermore, as for all food purchasing, the desire for healthier snacking options is also on the rise.
- In urban China, the vast number of small restaurants and road-side food kiosks are evidence of the consumers' love of dining out. It is estimated that Chinese people eat at least a third of their meals outside of their homes.
- According to a 2007 report from Beijing Zikoo Consulting, as reported in China International Business, turnover in the food and beverage sector exceeded RMB 1.2 trillion (US 175 billion) in 2007 and restaurant sales have grown by double-digit percentages from 1991 to 2007, mostly to the benefit of foreign chains.
- While the largest international restaurant chains have all established a presence in China–McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut–there appears to be a growing demand for home-grown fast food. Yum Brands' 2009 Q1 report shows international growth of 256 new restaurants, including a record 98 new units in mainland China. Yum Brands is the China parent company of KFC and Pizza Hut (Yum Brands, April 2009).
- Overseas fast food chains compete by offering country-specific menu items, for example, KFC's Shao-bing (Chinese-style pancakes) (China Economic Net, June 2009; Chaney, 2008). KFC's earlier investment in Hong Kong failed in 1975, having misjudged the local market. It has since worked hard to develop products that better fit the Chinese consumer's taste preferences, such as congee (rice porridge) for breakfast, Beijing Chicken Roll served with scallion and seafood sauce, and Spicy Diced Chicken, which resembles a popular Sichuan-style dish (ChinaDaily.com, June 30, 2008; Cho, July 2009).
- Although domestic entrepreneurs have been modestly successful in emulating foreign fast food restaurant concepts to provide food offerings more suited to local tastes, the vice chairman of the China Cuisine Association noted that there is no globally competitive restaurant chain. Regional taste differences are major challenges for all foodservice entrepreneurs. As earlier noted, the regional cuisines vary widely and successful menus would need to accommodate the different taste preferences of the local regions. However, this challenge may diminish as mobility and living standards continue to improve (Chao and Ding, August 2008).
Green Food, Hazard-Free Food and Organics
- China has established three certification categories for eco-labelled food products: Green Food, Hazard-Free Food and Organic. Green Food and Hazard-Free Food are certified to Chinese government standards, while Organic Food is certified to international standards. As the forerunner to certified Organic Food, Green Food has the longest history with Chinese consumers and thus is better known and understood.
- The White Paper on "China's food quality and safety" notes that China has developed 28,600 kinds of hazard-free agricultural products and set up 24,600 hazard-free production bases to date. In addition, HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) certification has been received by 2,675 food producing enterprises.
- China's organic standard is considered to be one of the most stringent in the world (IFOAM, China Case Studies). The Organic Food Development Centre of China (OFDC) of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) was established in 1994 and is the only organic certifier in China that has been accredited by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and ISO65 (OFDC, SEPA).
- China's organic sector has seen rapid growth over the last decade. In 2006, China ranked second in the world for total hectares of land under organic cultivation, with 2.3 million hectares, accounting for 0.4% of the total agricultural area. This growth is fuelled in part by the increasing availability of Organic products and rising consumer awareness (The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics & Emerging Trends 2008).
- The market for Organic products is small in relation to the
overall size of China's population, but there is a steadily-growing consumer
interest and demand, as a result of a number of recent food safety and quality
issues, such as:
- Melamine contamination of wheat gluten used in pet food, dairy products, baby formula and eggs (from hens fed contaminated feed);
- Mooncake fillings reused from previous year's unsold product (China Daily/China Economic.Net, October 2003)
- Pig organs contaminated with a banned metabolism accelerator, clenbuterol, which was illegally used to produce animals with more and leaner meat (Wines, February 2009);
- Malachite green, a chemical primarily used as a dye, used as a topical antiseptic or parasitic treatment in fish (Barboza, June 2007).
- The demand for Green Food and Organic products can be seen in
the results of Green—National Geographic Greendex 2009: Consumer Choice and
- Countries are ranked on how environmentally friendly
their consumers' lifestyle choices are. This includes:
- Use of energy-saving activities, such as adjusting thermostat settings, minimizing the use of fresh water, washing laundry in cold water to save energy
- Walking, cycling, use of public transportation, or living close to their most common destination
- Eating the least amount of meat and seafood
- Being most likely to say they buy environmentally friendly products all the time.
- Some of the findings include:
- Chinese consumers are among the most likely to agree to being concerned about environmental problems, and that the environment is having a negative impact on their health.
- While Chinese consumers rank highest on transportation and slightly lower on housing and goods, their lowest score is on food, despite a 9% increase to 19% in the rate of consuming self-grown foods several times a week.
- Chinese consumers are among the least likely to eat imported foods frequently and are among the most frequent consumers of local foods (41% daily) and fruits and vegetables (61% daily).
- Chinese consumers are among the most frequent consumers of fish and seafood and have an above-average rate of drinking bottled water, both factors that adversely impact their score.
- China implemented a ban on plastic shopping bags in June 2008.
- Countries are ranked on how environmentally friendly their consumers' lifestyle choices are. This includes:
- Organic food products are in higher demand among higher income families, but demand is small among middle income families due to income constraints. However, as the Chinese economy grows, demand is also expected to grow, as a result of food safety and health concerns.
The global recession has affected consumers to varying degrees. While the majority of consumers around the globe believe that they are living in a recession (69%), a smaller proportion of Chinese consumers would agree (23%), according to Datamonitor (July 2009). This may be due to the efforts of the domestic economic stimulus initiatives being undertaken by the Chinese Government, nevertheless the recession does not appear to have had much negative impact on the lifestyles and incomes, according to most of the consumers surveyed. Still, Chinese consumers overall have admitted to adjusting their spending priorities.
While Chinese consumers are very conscious of value-for-money, price alone is not the main consideration determining purchases. Chinese consumers are increasingly turning to the internet to research products, prices and applicable promotions, all of which are factors in determining whether or not a product is better value for money. According to Datamonitor, 67% of Chinese consumers placed a high or very high level of importance on the overall quality of products sold. Lower prices in general and the store running a lot of promotions and regular price discounts were also considered to be important factors at 52% and 50% consumer agreement, respectively. Almost one-third of those surveyed indicated that they had, in the past, changed where they shopped in order to save money. They also indicated a willingness to shop around in order to maintain consumption standards. However, 16% of consumers surveyed said that saving money when you buy groceries is less important than it was 2 years ago, as opposed to 5% globally.
China is a complex country with a booming economy. Ever-changing demographics and a high level of economic growth have combined to form a challenging market that mixes old and new. Traditional cooking and food preferences remain important, while trends like fast food, convenience foods, premium food products, and a taste for international food gain popularity and influence.
While food preferences for many Chinese consumers will remain rooted in traditional tastes, the younger generation will continue to evolve and are expected to provide opportunities for innovative new food products that are not limited to traditional cultural tastes. The latest generation of Chinese consumers is better educated and more affluent than previous generations, and is increasingly willing to try new products.
At the same time, food safety and quality are very important to Chinese consumers, in light of the serious food safety issues encountered in recent years.
Traditional cultural gender roles are also evolving. Only decades ago, China was a very traditional, male-dominated society where men dictated the food purchasing and consumption patterns, not to mention every other aspect of family life. Today, traditional roles have started to blur. Chinese women are emerging as wage-earners and are therefore an important force wielding considerable consumer clout. This demographic group should not be overlooked.
As Canada's share of China's import market is only 3%, there are opportunities in China for agri-food producers willing to make this investment and meet the diverse needs of today's Chinese consumer. Success will be based on a solid understanding of the complexities and contradictions of this affluent and evolving consumer market.
The Government of Canada has prepared this report based on primary and secondary sources of information. Although every effort has been made to ensure that the information is accurate, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada assumes no liability for any actions taken based on the information contained herein.
The Urban Chinese Consumer—Behaviour, Attitudes and Perceptions Towards
© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, 2010
ISSN 1920-6593 Market Analysis Report
AAFC No. 11202E
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