alone-and-thriving:-inside-china’s-singles-economy
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With 1.4 billion people, China has the world’s largest population. It also has the most single people. In 2018, China’s singles population reached 240 million, meaning that one out of every five people in China is single. This population alone already outnumbers the total population of the UK (67.1 million), France (67.5 million) and Germany (83.1 million). 

Also, the number of those living alone in China has reached 77 million and this number is expected to rise to 92 million by the end of the year. Such a large singles population implies huge potential in China’s singles economy.

China’s marriage rate has gradually decreased from 9.9 per 1,000 in 2013 to 5.8 per 1,000 in 2020. Many people who have reached marriage age in China don’t have a strong desire to get married. 

There are several reasons for this. Increasing levels of education and more time spent in tertiary education mean that young people, especially women, are postponing marriage. Also, weddings are much more expensive than they used to be, creating a heavy burden for young people. There is not only the cost of the ceremony, but also grooms and their families are often expected to shoulder more of the costs and furnish new brides with items such as large cash payments, jewellery, property or cars. And lots of young people simply enjoy single life and are choosing not to start a relationship or get married.

Today, nearly 90 per cent of China’s singles population lives in first-tier, new first-tier and second-tier cities. Without the financial pressures that come with dating, parenting and elderly care, they have more disposable income and are willing to spend it. In higher-tier cities, 40 per cent of singles live paycheck to paycheck; in lower-tier cities, 76 per cent do.

These singles spend time and money enjoying themselves, doing things like treating themselves to a good meal or a movie, and taking solo trips. They’re more self-indulgent than their parents’ generation and their spending is mostly driven by their own personal needs. They have a more open attitude towards new consumption concepts and they’re looking for a more convenient, fun, efficient lifestyle.

What singles buy 

A Nielsen survey found that around 52 per cent of single consumers in China spend for convenience and time-saving purposes, compared with 39 per cent of non-single consumers. Many of them live alone and with long working hours, cooking from scratch and the clean-up afterwards is too time consuming, so they resort to food delivery and individual-sized convenience foods that require little or no preparation.

Self-heating containers are a new means of instant food preparation. They first appeared in China in 2017 and have generated considerable sales growth since. The container comes equipped with a bag of materials (usually iron powder, aluminium powder and quicklime) that can start to release heat 5-10 seconds after cold water is poured over them. Consumers need to wait only about 10 to 15 minutes to start eating.

In addition to self-heating rice and noodle containers, there’s also the self-heating hot pot, made by famous domestic hot pot brands like Haidilao, Xiaolongkan and Dalongyi. They’re usually single portions with many flavour options so they’re popular with those living the solo life. During the pandemic in 2020, sales of self-heating hot pots increased over 200 per cent on JD.com, one of China’s biggest e-commerce platforms. 

Besides convenience, the size of food sold in single portions is also an important consideration for people living on their own in small apartments. This ‘individual size’ trend is also reflected in physical restaurants and home appliances. 

Traditionally in Chinese restaurants, food is placed in the middle of a circular table on a spinning tray for a table of two or more people to share. Now, some restaurants offer half-sized portions and there are mini rice bags in grocery stores that weigh only 500 grams.

Smaller home appliances, like mini microwaves, rice cookers, refrigerators and washing machines are also taking off. They’re light, portable and convenient for those living by themselves. Rechargeable electric lunch boxes that heat up small portions quickly, blenders, and auto hot pot cookers with built-in colanders that lift out of boiling water at the push of a button have also made a big impact. They’re less expensive than larger appliances, too. 

Bear Electric Appliance Co., a domestic brand established in 2006, is leading the individual-sized home appliances market with attractive design and relatively low prices. Its mini ovens and mini egg cooker are particularly popular. Other Chinese home appliance brands, like Midea, Haier, Xiaomi and Joyoung, have also started to manufacture mini home appliances.

Statistics from Tmall show that two younger demographics – Post-90s and Post-95s – are the main consumers of these individual-sized home appliances, together accounting for around 40 per cent of consumers in 2019. The numbers of consumers purchasing mini microwaves and mini washing machines on Taobao and Tmall have also increased, by 973 per cent and 630 per cent, respectively.

Furry friends

Pet ownership is also popular in China and singles account for a big chunk of this trend.

In 2020, the pet supplies market’s volume reached 300 billion RMB ($62.9 billion). In China, over 70 per cent of pet owners are Post-80s and Post-90s , and about 50 per cent are single. For them, pets are like family members; they provide a sense of safety and help relieve work and life pressures. 

Owners spend plenty of money on their pets, buying high-quality pet food, snacks, toys and daily necessities. What’s more, they’re willing to spend on more expensive items, such as smart cams that can monitor their pets when they’re not at home, automatic pet feeders, and smart pet houses with automatic temperature adjustment.

Online companions

There are also online services to help singles connect with others. For example, Chinese tech company NetEase launched a ‘Chat to heal’ service in its music and audio chat app. People can pay to have personal chats with their favourite audio livestream anchors.

A dating app called Soul provides similar one-to-one chats between strangers who are matched by the system based on a registration test they take that identifies key personality traits and interests. As of 2020, the app has over 100 million registered users and 30 million active users monthly.

Besides these online apps, smart speakers that users can chat with have also generated considerable growth in recent years. For example, Baidu’s Xiaodu smart speaker is able to chat with users and even tell jokes. Similar products include Alibaba’s Tmall Genie and Xiaomi’s XiaoAi. In 2019, nearly 45.9 million smart speakers were sold, a year-on-year increase of 109.7 per cent.

Solo travel

Statistics show that about 70 per cent of the singles population travels at least once a year, and according to numbers from Statista in 2019, 28 per cent of Chinese travellers born from 1980 to 1995 had travelled alone during the previous year, while 42 per cent of those born after 1995 had done the same.

What does this mean for brands?

The increasing singles population is exerting more and more influence on consumption in China, but serving singles doesn’t just mean reducing the size of a product. Instead, brands must reflect this cohort’s unique consumption needs and preferences in the product.

Brands can consider developing customised products or services that cater to single consumers. For example, at one hot pot restaurant in Wuhan, solo diners can flip a special switch on the table to have an encounter with the person sitting opposite them. If the person sitting opposite also flips the switch, a screen that sits between them opens and they can chat while they eat. The unusual ‘no obligations’ setting allows them to chat briefly over a meal and either have no further contact without losing face, or pass on contact details and continue to meet up.  

Brands should also try to create emotional connections with singles in marketing materials, campaigns and even product packaging. Domestic snack brand Danshenliang, whose name literally means “food for single people”, features a dog logo and shows a dog on its potato chip packets. The English expression ‘lone wolf’ matches a Chinese expression for someone who likes their independence – the self-deprecating term ‘single dog’. This affinity and symbolism makes the snacks attractive to single people who, interestingly enough, also like to share it on social media. A bond between consumer and brand is born.

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