After returning from a trip to China to conduct research on Green & Clean behaviour for a cosmetic brand, a UK client eagerly asked me about my impressions.
It’s been a couple of years I had not been able to enter China, despite being there virtually almost daily via online focus groups and ethno-boards. This query was thus a welcome invitation to take a more analytical look at my 3-week trip through Chengdu and Shanghai.
What has changed in post Covid China?
New lead-cities emerging Covid certainly did not stop China in its tracks. I was hugely impressed by Chengdu which has developed in strides since I was last there a few years back and has become a super-dynamic, thriving city, well deserving its “promotion” by the Chinese government from Tier 2 to a "new Tier 1" city. There was a buzz just walking in the streets and shopping areas. Fashionable millennials strut in the city centre and the more relaxed atmosphere (and distance from the central government) provides for a vibrant club and music scene and relatively overt presence of an LGBTQ community. Brands now must look beyond Beijing and Shanghai to understand cutting-edge China.
A new retail model I am not easily impressed by a shopping centre, but Taikoo Li Chengdu is a sight to behold. The onetime site of a Buddhist monastery turned alfresco mall is now a temple dedicated to contemporary style. In addition to offering blue-chip shopping (LV, Hermès, Cartier Gucci and the other usual suspects all have stores here), a new model of retail integrating culture, art and lifestyle experience is on display here. Many of the flagship stores boast cafés, restaurants, art installations and other unique ways to engage with brand stories through IRL and virtual means. A gigantic 90-degree curved LED digital display which delivers a 3D view without glasses completes the mesmerizing experience. Some of the most forward-looking retail models in the world merging experience and tech are in China, and they are worth taking a close look at.
The search of well-being I found Shanghai similar to the way it was during my last visit just before Covid with the exception of lots more by the way of "small pleasures" such as specialty coffee and milk tea shops literally popping up everywhere. Gyms, yoga and other well-being centres have expanded, and it seems people in general are much more focused on health, wellbeing and mental balance post-Covid, something we also witnessed in the focus groups. My colleagues took me to a Gong and hand-pan workshop on a Friday evening (as you do!) where the focus was on spiritual introspection and awakening through the musical practice. The studio was packed with fashionable GEN’Zs. These new life-goals and values encapsulated by GEN’Z resemble those of GEN’Z across the world yet bear “Chinese characteristics” and urban/ rural differences which Brands need to closely study.
The advent of quiet luxury in terms of consumption, urbanites are more intent on quality and discrete consumption rather than buying anything because "they can", as several respondents articulated in focus groups in Shanghai. This means subtle and elegant designs (best known as “old money style”, a hashtag that has been trending on social platform Xiaohongshu), noble materials worked according to craft traditions and outstanding designs instead of outstanding logos. Indeed, Brands that are more minimalist, timeless and emphasise quality workmanship and materials really started taking off over the last few years.
As elsewhere in the world, whilst the middle classes are squeezed, the rich spend more discreetly. The top spenders in China are of course also more mature luxury consumers, favouring classic styles and intrinsic quality over bling. Yet even younger consumers are captivated by the trend. Paradoxically, as China remains a status driven society, quiet luxury has just become a new status signifier and trendy way to be recognised as being “in the know”.