Chinese Consumers Aren't Spending as Much as Everyone Hoped

TAIPEI, Taiwan (TheStreet) -- Consumer spending was supposed to halt the slowdown in China's economy, but so far that hasn't happened. Chinese consumers, rather than spending freely with their growing wealth, are actually being cautious about purchases, which poses a challenge to companies hoping to tap the market of one billion consumers.

China says it's adjusting to a new norm of tapering economic growth, as shown by 2014 GDP figures released this week. But the country has said less about what went wrong with consumer spending. Beijing pledged in 2011 that by this year consumption would power the $10.4 trillion economy. Instead, the World Bank says private consumption's percentage of the Chinese GDP has fallen steadily from 47% in 2000 to 34% to 36% each year from 2010 to 2013.

The Chinese still spend, but where they spend their money hinges on selling things that appeal to a fearful, investor-based consumer mentality. That's good for brands with a reputation for product safety, social status or an added value such as free education.

"The Chinese consumer is much more behaving as an investor when buying than as a consumer," says Matthieu David-Experton, founder of market research firm Daxue Consulting in Beijing and Shanghai. "The Chinese are considering what returns they can get."

Middle-aged to older people prefer to save or buy property, habits the government has tried to curb as it eases poverty and pushes internal migration toward cities where there are more jobs and more stuff to buy. Rules enacted in 2013 to stop an asset bubble have slowed home sales, a likely reason that property investment rose 10.5% last year, down from 19.8% gain in 2013.

The richest tier has also cut spending as the Communist government gets serious about a crackdown on graft that includes lavish overseas trips for public servants and their purchases of blingy things such as Burberry (BBRYF) bags.

China's official Xinhua News Agency called "softening domestic demand" a factor in a GDP that grew just 7.4% last year as housing purchases and manufacturing investment fell. The economy rose by 9% to 10% per year before 2011. 

Some investment-minded spenders travel, relaxation for denizens of polluted, traffic-clogged cities and educational for those frustrated with censorship of information from abroad. Foreign carriers such as American Airlines (AAL) have drawn a lot of Chinese offshore. Those who make it only to a local cinema are relaxed or educated by films from the likes of Sony's (SNE) studios.

Chinese also pay willingly for food under Europe's Danone (DANOY) brand or American giant General Mills (GIS) because they're considered affordable, healthy and untainted, says Denis Suslov, a financial analyst at Kapronasia in Shanghai.

An urban consumer shift toward convenience -- time is money -- feeds American fast-food empires such as Starbucks (SBUX) and Dunkin' Donuts (DNKN) , which also offer the unusual advantage of clean seating for chats or laptop use. The same shift has flummoxed offline retailers Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) and Best Buy (BBY) .

Brands that suggest high social status or prospects of a better life have sustained demand for Apple (AAPL) devices and cars by General Motors (GM) , considered a solid name in China. 

And cities second-tier and smaller, along with younger people nationwide, are experimenting more with their money because it's a new to them. That's a boon to consumer electronics brands such as Lenovo (LNVGY) that price devices for the middle class.

"It is too early to say that consumption force is strong enough to support the economy on its own," Suslov says. "Still, consumption is a powerful economic force."

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no position in the stocks mentioned.

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