Coronavirus: China's young shoppers embracing 'less is more' lifestyle

BEIJING • Ms Tang Yue, a 27-year-old teacher from the city of Guilin in south-west China, steam-presses a blue dress and takes dozens of photographs before picking one to clinch her 200th online sale.

For a growing number of Chinese like Ms Tang, hit by job losses, furloughs and salary cuts, the consumer economy has begun to spin in reverse. They are no longer buying - they are selling.

Instead of emerging from the coronavirus epidemic and returning to the shopping habits that helped drive the world's second-largest economy, many young people are offloading possessions and embracing a newfound ethic for hard times: less is more.

With Ms Tang's monthly salary of about 7,000 yuan (S$1,400), the self-described shopaholic said she has bought everything from Chanel lipsticks to Apple's latest iPad.

But the adrenaline rush that comes with binge shopping is gone, said Ms Tang, whose wages have been slashed with the suspension of all classes on tourism management that she usually teaches.

"The coronavirus outbreak was a wake-up call," she said. "When I saw the collapse of so many industries, I realised I had no financial buffer should something unfortunate happen to me."

There is no guarantee the nascent minimalist trend will continue after the coronavirus crisis is over, but if it does, it could seriously damage China's consumer sector and hurt thousands of businesses from big retailers to street-corner restaurants.

To be sure, there are signs that pent-up demand will drive a rush of spending as the authorities reopen malls, leisure venues and tourist spots. In South Korea, the first major economy outside of China to be hit by the virus, people thronged malls this past weekend to go "revenge shopping" to make up for time lost in lockdown.

There are signs that a similar trend will take hold in China, where some upscale malls are starting to get busy, although luxury company Kering - which owns Gucci, Balenciaga and other brands - has said it is hard to predict how or when sales in China might come back. A recent McKinsey poll showed that between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of respondents in China said they would continue to be cautious, either consuming slightly less or, in a few cases, a lot less.

"The lockdown provided consumers with a lot of time and reasons to reflect and consider what is important to them," said Mr Mark Tanner, managing director at Shanghai-based research and marketing consultancy China Skinny.

Bargain hunting online has become a new habit for some. Idle Fish, China's biggest online site for used goods, hit a record daily transaction volume in March, its parent company Alibaba said. Government researchers predict that transactions for used goods in China may top 1 trillion yuan this year.

Mr Xu Chi, a Shanghai-based senior strategic analyst with Zhongtai Securities, said some Chinese consumers may prove the "21-day habit theory", a popular scientific proposition that it takes only that long to establish new habits.

Posts with the #ditchyourstuff hashtag have trended on Chinese social media in recent weeks, garnering more than 140 million views.

Ms Jiang Zhuoyue, 31, who works for a traditional Chinese medicine company in Beijing - one of the few industries that may benefit from the health crisis - has also decided to turn to a simpler life.

The mother of a nine-month-old baby said she recently sold nearly 50 pieces of used clothing as the lockdown gave her the opportunity to clear things out. "It also offered me a chance to rethink what's essential to me, and the importance of doing financial planning," she said.

Some are even selling their pets, as they consider leaving big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai where the cost of living is high.

As the coronavirus comes under control in China, the government is gradually releasing cities from lockdown, easing transport restrictions and encouraging consumers to venture back into malls and restaurants by giving out billions worth of cash vouchers, each worth between 10 yuan and 100 yuan.

But many people said they were still worried about job security and potential wage cuts because of the struggling economy. Nationwide retail sales have plunged every month so far this year.

Mr Xu Chi, a Shanghai-based senior strategic analyst with Zhongtai Securities, said some Chinese consumers may prove the "21-day habit theory", a popular scientific proposition that it takes only that long to establish new habits.

"We believe people's spending patterns follow the well-known theory, which means most people in China, having been cooped-up at home for more than a month and not having binge-shopped, may break the habit and not return to their old ways," Mr Xu said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2020, with the headline 'China's young shoppers embracing 'less is more' lifestyle'. Subscribe