‘Revenge’ buying vs. rational consumption: How China is spending after coronavirus lockdowns

Will the most confident consumers in the world's largest consumer market bounce back?

‘Revenge’ buying vs. rational consumption: How China is spending after coronavirus lockdowns

On May 5, Shanghai city officials launched the “Double Five” shopping festival, offering hefty discounts and extended store hours for the next two months in an attempt to boost spending and make up for the losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Combined sales—at both online and offline retailers—reached $2.2 billion in the first 24 hours of the “Double Five” shopping event (named for the date it started), according to the Shanghai Commerce Commission.

Shanghai has China’s most prolific shoppers—it ranked No. 1 in the country for per capita consumption expenditure during the first quarter of 2020.

As China eases out of coronavirus-induced travel restrictions and as shops and restaurants begin to reopen, local governments are pushing to get consumer spending—which makes up nearly 60% of gross domestic product growth in China—to pre-pandemic levels.

Provincial governments issued $2.69 billion in coupons and discount vouchers to stimulate spending during the Labor Day holiday in the first week of May. Wuhan’s deputy mayor even held a live-streaming event urging residents to patronize his favorite noodle shop.

“Now the lockdown is lifted and restaurants are opening, we can go out and have a nice breakfast,” he said.

But brief spurts of spending—like the “Double Five” event and the $2.7 million that luxury retailer Hermes earned on the day it reopened in Guangzhou in April—may not translate to an immediate, sustained recovery for the world’s largest consumer economy. In fact, experts predict economic uncertainty, rising unemployment, and lingering fears about the spread of the virus will keep China’s consumer economy from returning to pre-pandemic levels until at least the first quarter of 2021. The wary, newly thrifty attitude is a stark departure for shoppers who, until the coronavirus hit, had been among the world’s most confident.

The rise to the top

In the last ten years, rising household incomes expanded China’s urban middle class. More people gained more purchasing power, and in 2019 China overtook the U.S. to become the world’s largest consumer market, to the delight of Beijing.

“Because of the China-U.S. trade dispute, China has already lost a lot of GDP in terms of export, so to try to compensate for this deficit, the Chinese government really wants to boost local consumption,” said Michael Cheng, consumer markets leader for Asia Pacific, Hong Kong, and mainland China at professional services firm PwC.

Even as China’s year-on-year retail sales slowed with the advent of the U.S.-China trade dispute in 2018 and 2019, consumer confidence increased between the start of the feud and Sep. 2019, according to data compiled by McKinsey from China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

China’s consumer confidence score, based on the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development’s index, dipped due to the coronavirus but remained above 100 in March (China’s data for April is not yet available), a threshold that indicates consumers are more inclined to spend. U.S. consumers, by comparison, contribute around 70% of economic activity, and saw their confidence score drop from 101.47 in December to 98.60 in April.

“Notwithstanding that there might be a second round or revival of the virus, China is the first country to start to recover,” Cheng said. “That’s why I think the consumer [confidence] index will still be high.”

But Chinese consumers’ more positive outlook doesn’t mean their spending will automatically rebound with the speed and force of its drop-off.

Coronavirus’s threat to consumption

The coronavirus, and the subsequent mass lockdowns of business and society, arguably represent the biggest-ever modern-day threat to China’s consumer economy. Retail sales fell 7.5% year-on-year in April, higher than the forecast 7% decline as the official urban unemployment rate rose to 6%, compared to March’s 5.9% and the 4% to 5% rate of normal years.

China’s GDP contracted for the first time since 1976 this year because of the pandemic, and a March survey by China’s Southwestern University of Finance and Economics found that over 40% of households planned to reduce their consumption in 2020, while per capita consumption expenditure dropped 12.5% from the year before.

“Consumption [in China] will bounce back, but it won’t be revenge consumption, [it will be] recovery consumption,” said Ashley Dudarenok, founder of Alarice, a Hong Kong-based digital marketing firm that focuses on mainland China.

Revenge consumption refers to the idea that once businesses reopen in China, consumers will rush to make up for lost time by spending even more.

“For most people, it is inevitable that there will be anxiety about income reduction or even unemployment,” leading to more “rational consumption,” Dudarenok said.

Cheng said goods like disinfectant products and cooking supplies will see growth in China, as people spend more time at home and continue to worry about the spread of the virus. Beauty products, wine, and clothing, Cheng said, will have a U-shaped recovery—a gradual return to previous consumption levels. Daily necessities like pet food, toilet paper, baby food, and health products likely won’t be affected.

Indeed, data from Tmall, an online retailer operated by Alibaba Group, showed that sales of home appliances and cooking appliances respectively increased by 196% and 89% in early May compared to the same period last year, and book sales increased by 24%. E-commerce sales, meanwhile, climbed 5.9% year-over-year in the first three months of 2020, when almost everyone was at home under lockdown; physical stores saw sales decline by more than 20%.

Restrictions had eased across most of China by April, but during the Labor Day holiday in early May, when many people were still at home, online shopping orders increased by 45% compared to the same period in 2019, according to data from Alibaba-owned logistics company Cainiao.

Cheng said consumer spending in the first week of May—bolstered by local government incentives and e-commerce company discounts—brought business “80–90% back to normal.”

But, Cheng said, consumers might not continue spending at these levels for a sustained period of time, and depending on the state of the global economy, “business will start to go down a little maybe in June or July again.”

“We do need a little bit of recovery time, maybe up to the last quarter of this year, then we’ll start to see more of a back-to-normal stage—if we don’t see any second round of the pandemic,” Cheng said. “But I do think China is sitting in a much better position to weather this.”

More must-read international coverage from Fortune:

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