Qu Xue is a founding member of Euroeat Oy, a kickstarter company established in 2013, focusing on the promotion of Finnish brands – including Moomin Characters – and establishing online channels in China. Commonly known by the name Martyn, or “Martti” in Finnish, Qu Xue’s background is in former mobile phone giant Nokia’s software team.
“Entering the market, we were aware of the fact that China is the world’s leading country with regards to online business in general, and that its’ quick growth has been made possible by at least three crucial factors: the world’s most advanced online payment system, fast and low cost nation-wide logistics and feature-rich online shopping platforms,” Martyn says.
According to Martyn, the Alipay system, developed by Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba Group, is much more than a payment method, but rather a financial management tool. It has largely replaced the use of cash and card payments, especially among the young and middle class consumers in larger cities.
“Another local feature is the widespread use of QR codes to help consumers buy products instantly. Consumers can scan the product with a smartphone, authorize the payment with their fingerprint, and get the package delivered to their doorstep the next day.”
The booming online market means that the demand for packaging is also steadily growing:
“Currently the Chinese packaging market is mainly focused on price competition. However, logistic companies, vendors and also consumers are thirsty for change. Since the labour resource prices are now at a very high level, the trend for using heavy labour in the packaging process has passed, and new opportunities are surely opening up.”
Martyn notes that it has been estimated that the number of middle-class consumers in China will grow from 200 million to 600 million people within the next 10 years. This is naturally one of the main target groups for Euroeat, along with the next generation of young, highly educated individuals who keep up with the latest trends.
According to a study by Alibaba Group, the online retail market in China will be worth as much as 1.4 trillion US Dollars by 2020, with year-over-year growth estimated to reach 30%.
"Domestic demand in China is still very strong." -Qu Xue (Martyn), Managing Director, Euroeat China
“In China there are already 620 million smartphone users, and nearly 500 million of them have used online shopping services. The potential really is huge, with the market expected to expand rapidly,” Martyn enthuses, and continues: “Although there have been challenges in the Chinese economy, for example with the ongoing industrial and economic reforms, domestic demand in the country is still very strong. The Chinese authorities as well as major local companies have been active with innovative efforts in helping the economy grow.”
The way forward
Another observer with an excellent view to consumer activity in China is Leo Austin, CEO of the Jinliufu Spirits Company and Vice President of the holding company Vats Group – owner of 11 other distillery groups around China, as well as the country’s largest luxury spirits retail chain.
Leo Austin, CEO Jinliufu Spirits Company and Vice President of Vats Group
“Consumer demand remains steady,” he informs us. “We haven’t seen a downturn. However, consumers are being careful. Some areas of the country, particularly those focused on steel and coal, have been hit hard. Most other sectors continue to grow, and people remain quite optimistic for the future.”
According to Austin, the message today is about steady, sustainable growth, and change in the structure of the economy.
“We are not expecting a decline, but neither are we expecting a strong upturn in the short-term. If there is a contraction in bank lending, that could change things, but the Chinese national balance sheet is widely acknowledged to be strong – certainly strong enough to take the strain,” Austin says.
An additional comment from the analyst community is offered by Anne Stevenson-Yang, research director and co-founder of J Research, specialising in the Chinese economic outlook for institutional investors. In her view, there are some niche businesses that can still find growth in China. She explains that overall sales volumes in paper may be slightly up, but the margins are at a reduced level virtually across the board.
“In the paper business, for example, there are companies in specialised areas like high end graphic paper that can still experience growth. In the coming years I think the paper sector will see gradual decline – ultimately you’ll see the emergence of a couple of brands with better pricing power who will start to improve their margins again,” Stevenson-Yang says.
A brighter note
Commenting on the outlook for some of Metsä Fibre’s customers in China, Austin maintains that investment in packaging remains relatively high, and he does not expect it to change. “It’s part of the consumer mentality. The importance of packaging is a common feature of north Asian cultures and this remains very apparent in markets like Japan.”
"The importance of packaging is a common feature of North Asian cultures," Leo Austin Says.
This is an apposite observation. With all their peculiarities, it is easy to forget that Chinese markets remain highly exposed to the global economy, even while aiming to develop growth domestically. For this reason, observers focused on China will be watching the US election result carefully, as well as staying informed on potential geopolitical conflicts.
“The structure of the export industries has changed,” he continues. “There are areas of the country that are still very export-processing focused, for instance Guangdong in the south and Zhejiang near Shanghai in the East. However, the export processing sector has declined since the 2008 global crisis.”
In the context of the wider world, wages in China are no longer considered cheap and increasingly China is attempting to export its products, rather than its labour. Austin points out that the country’s most successful exporters are now often global industry leaders. This also has geopolitical implications: “US companies, for instance, might still want Chinese export processing but they may not want Chinese competitor products. The decline of local industry has been a major theme of the current US election cycle, after all.”
Trends begin at home
On the consumer’s part, Austin sees an emphasis on high quality in purchasing decisions, which has some far-reaching consequences. “While everyday consumers remain careful, wealthy consumers continue to buy high quality products for themselves and their families. We are not necessarily talking about luxuries, but premium products. One of the outcomes of this is that consumers are more and more attracted to imported products in the food sector. There are a number of large retail chains now that focus on imported foods and beverages.”
Austin also points out that changes in the macro-economy may have driven some changes in consumer and retailer behaviour, which may endure in the long term. Consumers are entertaining at home less, for example – they spend less on gifts for others, and spend more cautiously in general.
Considering the demographics at play, he mentions that the younger generation are showing willingness to consume more than their parents. But across the board, consumers in general are maturing in his opinion. “People now seek out better brands. They are less easily fooled by exciting stories. A few years ago, this was the case in the larger cities. It’s now the case in smaller towns also.” He adds that e-commerce is growing well, which surely represents opportunities for those who have already learned their digital lessons in more developed markets.
All in all, it would seem that an attitude of watchfulness is best adopted in relation to the Chinese market. Retail outlets are being careful themselves, Austin explains, as intense competition between the larger chains is causing losses for some, leading them to put their suppliers under pressure.
“All consumer goods categories are consolidating,” he concludes, “and fewer brands will survive. Many of the tactical approaches that companies could take five years ago simply don’t work anymore. We now have brand and channel penetration down to the smallest towns, so the easy expansion period is gone. We have huge fragmentation of media, so it’s difficult to grow a brand quickly through aggressive advertising spend. It’s all hard work.”
All this will almost certainly lead to a struggle to deliver brand value and make product quality more visible on the shelf. Every aspect of a brand owner’s offering must be geared toward these aims, beginning, of course, with the packaging – which often represents the first point of contact with the consumer. In the long run, while only the strong may survive in China, packaging and presentation may be among the key differentiators to put a brand among the victors.
the forest SETS THE PACE
“In a way I feel it’s misleading to talk about China’s slowing growth and the pulp business in the same context,” says Harri Vertanen, Vice President, East & Southeast Asia at Metsä Fibre. A bold statement, perhaps, but one which draws upon direct experience of the Chinese market from the company’s base of local operations in Shanghai.
“While GDP growth has dropped somewhat” he explains, “in the pulp business, imports have been increasing – more than anyone might have expected, and surpassing GDP growth itself.”
When fielding questions about the country’s slowing growth from his colleagues, Vertanen finds he can only talk from his own point of view: “Living in China, I don’t feel that growth is slowing. My own perceptions tell the same story as our statistics – I’m not worried at all.”
On the topic of sustainability, he sees the Chinese authorities placing most focus on pollution, which has potentially far-reaching implications. As well as economic pressures, environmental requirements may lead inefficient and polluting local mills to close. This will offer more established paper producers a better position, creating further opportunities for Metsä Fibre in Vertanen’s view.