Profiling the elusive Chinese Consumer

This article was publish in the 2016 March/April issue of “GCTicker”, a bimonthly publication by the German Chamber of Commerce in China. The complete magazine can be downloaded here.

Profiling the Elusive Chinese Consumer

Living in a Chinese metropolis like Shanghai for a few years feels like watching socio-economic change happen in a time-lapse animation – a technology that enables the viewer to experience movements that in reality are too slow to be visible to the naked eye, like the growth of a plant or the movement of stars.

In several design research projects we had the opportunity to gain first-hand experience of these changes through interviews and observations of Chinese consumers or end-users. These findings were not in any way quantitative but rather qualitative: a probing that helped us to better understand what specific users groups were looking for.

Experience can be risky

Seasoned managers and company owners often believe that they figured out what their customers need. Some have been in this position for many years and exhibit a tendency to take the proven path or follow successful competitors. Depending on the product or service they are offering, this seemingly risk-free behavior can proof to be, indeed, risky. The competition might be less inclined to this no-risk attitude and come forward with a product that better addresses the clients’ current needs and expectations. Moreover, past findings about the Chinese consumer are likely to be outdated due to the fast-paced development China has undergone in the last decades and is still experiencing today.

The best approach to this issue would be to try to understand the end-user without preconceptions. As a mediator between companies and user/consumer we attempt to gain direct insight by asking naïve questions and observing users in their home and/or interacting with a product. More often than not, the client’s or our own preconceptions turn out to be quite off the mark. However, these interactions with users can scarcely lead to absolute certainty – they can only serve as inspiration and the asking or observing party should be aware that especially in a country that is as large, diverse and dynamic as China there is no way to precisely foresee consumer behavior in general. But approximation is better than outright guessing.

Extra cheap or super expensive?

In a project related to the development of a medical product our client firmly believed that the price-point of the products would be the decision driver. There were many competing products and the domestic products all looked more or less the same and had a very similar price tag. Of course, the management wanted to develop a new product that is nicer and better than the competition but costs the same, which was flatly impossible.

Interviewing patients and their relatives we discovered that the price-point was their least concern. Ease-of-use, attractive design and reliability all ranked higher. The interviewed individuals stated, that they would be willing to pay more than double for a new product with these qualities. But the experience the management had was that price is the key. In the – relatively short – time during which these experiences were formed and the present, the key decision criteria seems to have shifted. Studying the figures of economic development this might be obvious that the middle class is growing and more willing to spend, but it is not easy to throw strategies overboard that worked so well for a long time.

In many products and brand there still is visible a clear dichotomy of “extra cheap” or “super expensive” that is indicative of a wide social gap. While this gap is yet to be bridged it is clear that the market between these extremes is getting bigger (Ernst & Young predicts middle-class will make up to 70% of the population in China by 2030). These consumers are willing to spend but less interested in getting the cheapest offering. A strong tendency of trading up from cheap to more premium products is happening through the board, ranging from product such as rice to cosmetics (cf. McKinsey China Consumer report 2016). For products and services related to health and well-being this is even more so.


A consumer in China today is bombarded with food horror-stories on social media, television and in print. These stories are big because they are of vital interest to the consumer and resonate with a deep-rooted suspicion many consumers feel.

An organic farm we work with produces organic vegetables in several farms in China. In the last 8 years their client base grew 20-fold. Their vegetables are considerably more expensive than regular wet-market vegetables but far from luxury. Food scandals and a general wariness of overly cheap food certainly did their part in this business development. Unsafe food might not be a new phenomenon, but the media coverage certainly is. Today it is arguably much more difficult to sweep food safety issues under the carpet. Government control too is stricter – for organic food, each individually sold veggie comes with a QR code that can be scanned and points to the originator of the vegetable.

Consumers are avidly using social media to voice negative experiences that couldn’t have been heard before. Even though there is occasional misuse of this strong tool of user-feedback (eg. wechat postings of the public demolishing of luxury cars by their disgruntled owner, which maybe in some cases could be related to a heightened sense of entitlement of the owner rather than a seriously faulty product), the consumer overall benefits from this development: large companies can no longer risk pretending their products are safe when they are not. The fact that consumers want to live healthy and won’t take fraudulent behavior tacitly may come as no surprise, but the pace in which these expectations are communicated is new: real-time.

Exposure to international life-style

In 2012 China overtook Germany as the world’s number one tourist (expenditure on travel) and has held the top spot since. Many Chinese are interested in other cultures and are now enjoying the means to travel. Spending on experiences like travel grew much stronger than spending on products in the last few years (cf. McKinsey China Consumer Report 2016). Aside from of all the negative reports surrounding this phenomenon, like French hotels not accepting Chinese tourists or the blacklisting of Chinese nationals that behaved inappropriately while travelling other countries, this development naturally has a huge impact on society.

While researching the potential of outdoor furniture in China we encountered – within our as well as the client’s team – assumptions that Chinese do not really appreciate outdoor life style, avoid the sun at all costs, and in general prefer indoor for relaxation. A brief look at the balcony spaces in any residential compound seems to confirm this idea: if the balcony is not enclosed it is used for laundry or storing unused furniture sometimes dating back a few tenants.

Interviewing target audiences in tier-1 and tier-2 cities we found that indeed there is a strongly positive connotation to outdoor living and sitting outside, sipping coffee or tea – while not exposed to direct sun though – is a much appreciated way of relaxation, just as it is in the Western world. The appreciation of this life-style appears to have grown only in the last years and would have been difficult to predict.

Know that you don’t know

The Socratic principle of acknowledging your own ignorance is especially true in regards to “the” Chinese consumer. Assumptions from long-standing experts or even past experience can proof to be hopelessly outdated when the mysterious, unfathomable and elusive Chinese consumer is to be profiled. For any new brand or product development that is targeting him and her (and which is not?) a careful approach of conscious nativity is most helpful. Don’t expect to map him out precisely, but at least: listen, observe and get some ideas.