A pedestrian looks at her smartphone while standing outside an Apple Inc. store in Shanghai, China. (Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Holiday Shopping Spree to Show What's Really Up With China’s Economy

(Bloomberg) -- China’s consumers have cut back on purchases of everything from Apple Inc.’s iPhones to Swiss watches as the trade war with the U.S. hits the economy.

Landing just days after hundreds of local companies issued profit warnings and multinationals sounded the alarm about softening demand, the week-long Lunar New Year holiday will provide the next litmus test of the resilience of the Chinese shopper.

Starting Feb. 4, the seven-day period sees hundreds of millions of people travel within the country to see relatives, fly overseas to take vacations - and open their wallets to buy gifts. In 2018, Chinese spent 926 billion yuan ($137 billion) at restaurants and stores ringing in the Year of the Dog.

This year’s celebration is the first to take place during a trade war with the U.S., and as China’s 1.4 billion people prepare to welcome the Year of the Pig, the data don’t bode well. The trade fight has dragged on China’s stock and property markets, and gross domestic product in the final quarter of 2018 rose at the slowest pace since the global financial crisis.

Companies selling to middle-class consumers will be the most vulnerable this holiday as wealthier Chinese continue shopping but the more budget-conscious cut back, said Adam Xu, a partner in Shanghai with consulting firm OC&C, who advises retail and consumer companies on their China strategy. “The slowdown in growth is happening and most likely in the mass part of the market,” Xu said.  

With Chinese consumers in the global spotlight, here’s the outlook for some industries that count on them spending to ring in the New Year holiday.

Buying Bling

Demand for jewelry has traditionally climbed during the holiday because gold is seen an auspicious gift from older generations to younger ones. These days, it’s not just the weak economy that has the bling industry feeling the holiday blues. Nikos Kavalis, London-based director of research firm Metals Focus Ltd., said buying “will not be what it used to be 10 years ago because a lot more Chinese consumers nowadays choose to travel abroad rather than go to their hometown.”

Hong Kong’s Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group Ltd., is expecting no sales growth this year compared with the New Year holiday in 2018, according to Managing Director Kent Wong. The company is trying new product designs to inspire consumers to splurge.

“We believe some discretionary purchases, especially for those high-price products, will be hit by the market conditions,” he said.

Holiday Shopping Spree to Show What's Really Up With China’s Economy


Luxury Litmus Test

Many of the big luxury brands say that China’s rich are still shopping hard. French fashion giant LVMH on Jan. 29 reported strong demand for its spirits and leather goods from Chinese consumers. “The trend of last year continues in January because Chinese New Year is very close now,” Chief Executive Officer Bernard Arnault said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

Premium goods are popular purchases during the festive season, and the week-long holiday will be an indication of just how resilient the biggest spenders are. There have already been pockets of weakness. Exports of Swiss watches to China slumped in December and Swatch Group AG reported Jan. 31 that China contributed to a slowdown in the fourth quarter.

Holiday Shopping Spree to Show What's Really Up With China’s Economy

Duty-Free Boom

Chinese consumers account for a third of global duty-free spending, and the economic slowdown has weighed on travel companies.

The Lunar New Year could be key to turning things around. More than 400 million Chinese tourists are likely to travel domestically during the holiday, about 4 percent more than last year, according to Citigroup. Seven million Chinese will head to overseas destinations, an 8 percent rise from last year.

With the yuan down over the past year, tourists may be heading to more affordable destinations in Asia. Duty free operators like Japan Airport Terminal Co. could benefit, according to a Bloomberg Intelligence report published Jan 22.

Holiday Shopping Spree to Show What's Really Up With China’s Economy

Counting on High Rollers

Casino operators count on the holiday to bring in tourists from China’s mainland. Last year, Macau had more than 900,000 visitors during the New Year break, about 40 percent more than the average week. Average hotel rates were about 2,000 patacas ($247), almost four times the usual price.

Weakness in China’s property and manufacturing sectors has dampened the annual outlook for the world’s largest gaming destination. Analysts expect Macau’s 2019 casino revenue to decline about 1 percent from last year, according to a Bloomberg survey. In November, they had been estimating 5 percent growth.

Tourists are still going to be flocking to Macau this holiday, according to Lawrence Ho, chief executive officer of casino operator Melco Resorts & Entertainment Ltd. The operator just launched a new stunt show and a Ferrari exhibition in its resorts.

“This Chinese New Year we will definitely see business growth,” Ho said, adding that all of the company’s hotels in Macau are fully booked for the holiday period.

Holiday Shopping Spree to Show What's Really Up With China’s Economy

Boozy Times

Holiday purchases will account for about one-quarter of total sales for Kweichow Moutai Co., producer of China’s favorite baijiu liquor, Chairman Li Baofang told the Xinhua News Agency in December. Chinese shoppers buy the company’s drinks as gifts and for toasts at the family table.

Holiday Shopping Spree to Show What's Really Up With China’s Economy

But the economic slowdown is hurting demand for spirits heading into the New Year holiday. Demand for premium baijiu products has weakened from two months ago, according to a report published by China International Capital Corp. on Jan. 23 that said prices for premium liquor had dropped by 20 percent from October.

“The momentum of consumption in China has been slipping off, that’s for sure,” Takeshi Niinami, chief executive officer of Japan’s Suntory Holdings Ltd., told Bloomberg Television in an interview from Davos.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.