China’s large consumer market is not yet recovering to pre-pandemic levels

Tourists visit ice sculptures in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province on New Year’s Day 2023.

China News Service | VCG | Getty Images

BEIJING — It will take time for Chinese consumers to really start spending again, despite China’s abrupt transition toward reopening.

About a month after the city of Guangzhou resumed serving at the store, local coffee shop owner Timothy Chong said revenue was rebounding ̵[ads1]1; to 50% of normal levels.

“At the end of December, the flow of customers gradually normalized, with a slight upward trend, but [a recovery in] business volume still has to wait,” he said in Chinese, as translated by CNBC.

He expects that it will take at least three or four months before income can normalize. In the past six months, revenue had fallen to 30% of typical levels, Chong said. He said Bem Bom Coffee’s first store opened in late 2019, followed by a second store and a coffee academy in August 2021.

China’s retail sales fell slightly for 2022 as of November, official data showed. Consumption has lagged behind general economic growth since the pandemic began almost three years ago.

For the coming year, Bain partner Derek Deng kept a lid on expectations. “The hope is that we will at least return to the level of the first quarter of 2022,” he said, noting that was just before the shutdown in Shanghai.

China’s large consumer market is not yet recovering to pre-pandemic levels

Retail sales for the first three months of 2022 rose about 3.3% from a year ago, but had slowed to a 0.7% decline for the first half, according to Wind Information.

A return to 2021 — when retail sales rose 12.5% ​​— would be an optimistic scenario, Deng said. “I don’t think people are looking at it as kind of a base case, mostly because the macro factors are actually less favorable compared to 2021.”

The bulk of Chinese household wealth is tied up in real estate, a one-time hot market that has fallen over the past year. The Chinese mainland stock market fell in 2022 for the first time in four years. Exports, a driver of China’s growth, have begun to slow in recent months as global demand slows.

Deng also noted fears of a second Covid wave, the highly contagious XBB omicron subvariant coming in from abroad and geopolitical uncertainty.

“I think it also has an impact on people’s perception of their disposable income or whether they need to save to deal with all these uncertainties,” he said.

Chinese consumers’ propensity to save reached record highs last year, according to People’s Bank of China surveys.

Hoping for a travel recovery

Analysts are closely watching the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday for indications of consumer sentiment. The travel season for China’s big holiday runs this year from around January 7 to February 15 — with about 2.1 billion trips expected, according to official estimates.

That’s double last year and 70% of 2019 levels, China’s Ministry of Transport said on Friday. It noted that most trips are likely to be for family visits, while only 10% will be for leisure or business.

This year, many more Chinese will finally be able to travel abroad. The country is restoring the ability for Chinese citizens to travel abroad at leisure, after strictly controlling mainland borders for nearly three years. On Sunday, China also formally lifted quarantine requirements for incoming travelers.

However, Chinese overseas travel is unlikely to pick up until around the next public holiday in early April, said Chen Xin, head of China leisure and transport research at UBS Securities.

By then, people will have been able to process their passport applications, while the number of international flights may have recovered to 50% or 60% of 2019 levels, Chen said. He added that measures such as requirements for virus testing before flights to visit certain countries could be relaxed within a few months.

Within China, Chen expects travel to get another boost after February as business travel picks up, bringing hotel business back to 2019 levels by the end of the year. It is based on an industry calculation that measures income per available room.

Not everyone is going out

China’s big city streets are getting busier as the first wave of infections passes.

But it’s mostly younger and middle-aged people who are out and about again, UBS’s Chen said, noting that older people may be more cautious about venturing out.

After a gradual rollback of Covid controls, Chinese authorities last month suddenly did away with most of the country’s virus testing and contact tracing measures. However, vaccination rates for China’s elderly have been relatively low. Only domestically produced vaccines are generally available in China.

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Bain’s Deng is also looking at whether consumers will start going out more. During the first three quarters of 2022, about 56% of consumer spending was at home — the opposite of the pre-pandemic trend, he said.

If the share of out-of-home spending can increase by a few percentage points, it will affect how malls and restaurants consider their business strategy, especially for delivery services, Deng said.

In the past 18 months, Chinese e-commerce giant shortened the delivery window for many products from next day to just one hour. It is through the collaboration with Dadanow majority owned by JD.

Figures from the company showed that for the period 16 December to 1 January, one-hour delivery platform sales of vegetables, beef and mutton had roughly doubled from a year ago. Refrigerator sales rose 700%, while flat-screen TV sales jumped tenfold from a year ago, according to the data.

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