Mass Consumption

How post-lockdown binge shopping in China is keeping the industry afloat.

By Hung Huang
Photograph by Erwan Frotin

A letter from… Beijing - © System Magazine

How post-lockdown binge shopping in China is keeping the industry afloat.

If you are Chinese and have been in lockdown between January 24 and March 31, what is the first thing you do when you can leave the house on April 1? A run in the park? A visit to see friends? A trip to your favourite restaurant? No! The first thing you do is rush to the local luxury mall, run to your favourite luxury brand, and let that credit card rip!

Yes, luxury sales went into hyper-growth mode after mainland China ended its lockdown and long lines immediately began to form outside malls due to pandemic regulations. Everyone has a health app and if you want to enter a mall and shop, your personal health status had better flash green and your temperature had better be under 37.3o Celsius when tested at the door. And last but not least, you better be wearing a mask.

Once inside, you can become part of the stampede towards the Louis Vuitton menswear section and Virgil Abloh’s latest, or perhaps the dash to Hermès to make sure that the one Lindy in elephant grey that you saw before the pandemic is still there. People – and by that, I mean Western people – who find this behaviour bizarre and strange, started to call it ‘revenge shopping’.

Which doesn’t make sense. Revenge against what? The phrase is actually a direct translation from Chinese internet-speak: bào fù is the word for revenge, but it also means to do something with excessive vigour. So actually, it’s more like ‘binge shopping’. What it’s called doesn’t really matter; what does is why the world’s largest market for luxury goods has such strange habits. Its consumers get super-sensitive when Dolce & Gabbana makes fun of chopsticks, but amused when
Balenciaga revives 1980s Chinese kitsch for a Valentine’s Day bag advertising campaign. China is also probably the only country where salespersons allegedly require consumers to buy other goods equal to 150% of the price tag of a bag in order to sell it to them. It’s called – and here’s another Chinese word for you – pèi é or quota shopping. And the quotas, I hear, are hitting ridiculous new highs.

There are reasons why Chinese love to shop luxury. The first, I think, is that there are lots of people with lots of money. Wealth is concentrated in the richest 5-10% of the Chinese population, and with a base number of 1.5 billion people, 10% means 150 million luxury shoppers. That’s equivalent to almost half the population of the USA. Wealth in China is also young, either first generation or second generation, and the wealthiest teens in private schools don’t have to wear uniforms.

The second reason is the dominance of commercial culture in China. There aren’t many museums and cultural venues in China, and most of them are financed and owned by the government, with the exception of those in Shanghai. For 40 years, to look at new things, beautiful things and novelties, the Chinese flocked to the shopping mall. (I should also note here that malls were the first spaces to open after lockdown. Who says communists don’t worry about consumer spending!)

The third reason: the Chinese are old fashioned when it comes to political systems, but committed early adopters of new fashion and technology. The fact that the fashion market can satisfy that thirst for novelty is a huge plus for the industry in China. ‘Just arrived!’ is always good advertising here.

The rebound of luxury sales in China after the pandemic has also finally answered the question about whether the Chinese only buy luxury abroad because it’s cheaper. The answer appears to be no. If Chinese consumers want cheaper, there is Taobao – China and the world’s e-commerce site – they don’t need to go to Louis Vuitton or Gucci. Of course, if they can travel and so avoid paying the luxury tax in China, then they will, but if the borders are closed, they won’t hesitate to get their fill at home.

Are these signs of the emergence of a mature luxury market? Maybe. Aren’t all the rich Chinese fleeing China with their money? Probably not. The lifestyle of the top 10% is rarely affected by an economic downturn in any society, and as for the rich emigrating, honestly, they may want a foreign passport, but they still want their favourite local bowl of noodles: pasta is still not considered a daily staple for any Chinese stomach.

Taken from System No. 16.