International Real Estate
International Real Estate
The Middle Blingdom
Sales of costly trifles are even better than you think
Feb 17th 2011 | HONG KONG | from the print edition
MANY Chinese people still remember the days when luxury meant a short queue for the toilet at the end of the street, or a bus conductor who wasn’t excessively rude. Before the economy opened up, a chic suit meant one with the label of a state-owned factory sewn ostentatiously on the sleeve. How times change.
Sales of luxury goods are exploding, despite a hefty tax on importing them. A new report by CLSA, a broker, forecasts that overall consumption in China (including boring everyday items) will rise by 11% annually over the next five years. That is very fast. But sales of luxury goods will grow more than twice as quickly, reckons CLSA: by 25% a year. No other category comes close. Even spending on education, a Chinese obsession, is projected to grow by “only” 16% annually.
China is already the largest market for Louis Vuitton, a maker of surprisingly expensive handbags, accounting for 15% of its global sales. Within three years, reckons Aaron Fischer, the report’s author, China’s domestic market for bling will be bigger than Japan’s. By 2020 it will account for 19% of global demand for luxuries (see chart). And that is only half the story.
For the most ostentatious Chinese consumers like to shop abroad. CLSA estimates that 55% of the luxury goods bought by Chinese people are bought outside mainland China. This is partly because of those high tariffs, which can top 30%. But it is also because counterfeiting is rife. Ask a well-heeled Chinese lady about her new handbag and she is quite likely to point out that she bought it in Paris. This tells you not only that she is rich enough to travel, but also that the bag is genuine.
If you include the baubles Chinese people buy outside China, the nation’s share of the global luxury market will triple, to 44%, by 2020, predicts CLSA. The wealth of China’s upper-middle class has reached an inflection point, reckons Mr Fischer. They have everything they need. Now they want a load of stuff they don’t need, too.
In Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district, queues of bling-hungry mainlanders stretch into the streets outside stores carrying the best-known brands. Sales of jewellery in Hong Kong rose by 29% in the year to December; sales of high-end footwear and clothing shot up by 31%. Companies that cater to show-offs have much to boast about. Richmont, the world’s biggest jeweller, registered a 57% increase in Asian sales in the fourth quarter. Hermès, a maker of fancy accessories, saw its sales in Asia climb by 45%. Burberry China was up by 30%; LVMH Asia soared by 30% outside Japan. Luxury sales in December were “spectacular”, says Mr Fischer, and growth is accelerating.
In some ways the Chinese market is much like everywhere else. The same brands are popular, besides a few companies that are perceived in China to be Western but are in fact almost entirely geared toward China, such as Ports Design, a seller of posh clothes.
There are, however, substantial differences. The average Chinese millionaire is only 39, which is 15 years younger than the average elsewhere. Prosperous Chinese are less shy about flaunting their wealth than people in other countries. On the contrary, many believe they must show off to be taken seriously.
Whereas the market for luxury goods in other countries is typically dominated by women, in China the men fill the tills with nearly equal abandon. They buy both for themselves and for other men, since gifts lubricate business in China. They are often willing to pay a large premium over the list price for desired items—many believe, for some reason, that the more something costs, the better it is.