Chinese shoppers splash on luxury goods, but still won't eat out

LVMH's China sales last quarter rose 65 per cent from a year ago while overall group revenue dropped 38 per cent. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Chinese consumers are back to binging on luxury handbags, cosmetics and cars. But this shopping enthusiasm is not extending to mass consumption in sporting goods, beer and restaurants.

An uneven recovery is under way in China as the world's biggest consumer market also becomes one of the first nations to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic that continues to ravage the global economy.

Bored after months of strict social distancing measures and unable to vacation overseas, wealthy Chinese consumers are seeking comfort in retail therapy. This bodes well for dozens of luxury goods makers whose growth was fuelled by China's increasing affluence in the past decade.

Bloomberg analysed June-quarter revenue for over two dozen companies that are market leaders in China across key consumer goods categories. Three pandemic-triggered trends emerged, driven mostly by pent-up desire to spend, focus on healthy lifestyles or wariness of public spaces.

Luxury goods makers saw double-digit revenue growth in the latest quarter compared to the same period last year, underscoring the strongest recovery trend. Inability to travel overseas has boosted businesses in the domestic tourism hotspots and duty-free shops.

"The pent-up demand from nearly two months of lockdown between February-March likely led local shoppers to purchase more aspirational brands than mass-brands," said Catherine Lim, a Singapore-based Bloomberg Intelligence analyst. "Consumers are definitely looking to treat themselves following the scare from the outbreak."

LVMH's China sales last quarter rose 65 per cent from a year ago while overall group revenue dropped 38 per cent. The wine-to-watches luxury group has seen "a very good offset in China for the rest of the business, which is suffering", Jean-Jacques Guiony, LVMH's chief financial officer, said in an earnings call in late July.

Kering's sales in mainland China jumped over 40 per cent after a hit in the first quarter.

But these spoils are not shared by mass-category consumer products. Other firms such as Anta Sports Products Ltd. and electrical-appliance maker Midea Group have seen little or no sales growth between April and June.

Total retail sales were still decelerating in July, highlighting the continuing economic pain from the coronavirus outbreak.

The government data as well as market research show that the pandemic "deals a bigger blow to the low-income consumers who have to further tighten their belt," said Luo Yixin, a consumer analyst at Huatai Financial Holdings. "That's why the performance of consumer brands in China has polarised in the last few months."


Companies promoting healthy living - dairy firms in particular - have been another big beneficiary as consumers strive to take better care of themselves.

China Mengniu Dairy reported 19 per cent revenue growth for the June quarter and an 86 per cent profit surge compared to last year. Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group saw a 23 per cent rise in revenue and 72 per cent surge in quarterly profit, rebounding from a profit slump in the March quarter.

"Consumers' rising health awareness amid the coronavirus outbreak is bringing growth opportunity for health-related products, especially the dairy business," Yili said in the interim result statement in August. Mengniu too expects sales and profit growth to continue for the same reasons, brokerage UOB Kay Hian said in an Aug 28 report, citing company management in a post-earnings call.

By-health, a Chinese protein powder and vitamin provider, launched a marketing campaign aimed at "strengthening immunity" and saw sales surge almost 17 per cent in the second quarter after a drop of 5 per cent in the March quarter.

But the drive towards healthy lifestyles is not helping every company in the fitness sector, with people still reluctant to go into gyms or undertake outdoor activities due to the lingering fear of crowds.

While people have begun leaving their homes again to work and shop, they are wary of dining out and socialising.

Yum China Holdings, operator of KFC and Pizza Hut eateries in the country, continued to see sales drop in the second quarter. Budweiser Brewing narrowed its sales decline in the second quarter, boosted by supermarkets and online sales, but the slow reopening of night clubs and bars remains a drag.

Analysts expect sales growth for luxury goods to temper somewhat after the pent-up demand is satiated.

"Shoppers from mainland China are likely going to be selective in their purchases in the second half of the year," said Bloomberg Intelligence's Ms Lim. "Spending, in general, will slow down from the surge we had seen over April and June."

Follow ST on LinkedIn and stay updated on the latest career news, insights and more.