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What do Chinese consumers crave for? Here is how New Retail reshapes fresh food trends

2019-06-25 10 minute read UK

Special promotion (特价) section in a Chinese supermarket / Photo by Quan


  • New Retail is leading China's fresh-food movement
  • How Chinese supermarkets are adapting to export demand
  • How festive packaging can encourage year-round sales

China is one of the biggest import markets in the world (due to continued economic growth and policy restrictions being gradually lifted). In 2018, there were between 50,000 and 60,000 imported food brands nationwide.

Consumers’ spending habits

This is part of our Festive Spending series, in which we explore Chinese consumers’ spending habits during important Chinese holidays and discuss how exporters can make the most of it.

In the first half of last year, China Customs Inspection and Quarantine (中华人民共和国海关) oversaw $64.04 billion USD of imported foodstuffs. Oil, dairy, and seafood remain the most popular although Chinese people are seeking different foods to try out.

China Daily reports that purchasing director for Shanghai’s City Shop, Chen Weinian, identified a shift in foreign foods being mainly consumed by expats to rising in popularity with Chinese consumers. This continued volume of import led to changes in the structure of local independent supermarkets.

Chinese festivals, with Lunar New Year celebrations in particular, are a fantastic opportunity to introduce new products into the market. With the themes of celebration and trying new things, exporters are in with a good chance of attracting new consumers and breaking into new demographics.

Pushing for freshness

Customers choosing frozen seafood from a refrigerated display counter / Photo by Quan

Chinese New Year festival runs in the first quarter of the year (usually between January and February) with celebrations lasting approximately 15 days, and supermarkets during that period are busier than ever.

“Fish is the most popular in our store” says Liu, a salesperson in an independent supermarket in southern China. “On (Lunar) New Year’s Eve, we have to replenish raw fish every hour. Normally, we replenish fish only before the morning peak and the evening peak.”

In 2018, China imported nearly 200 thousand metric tons of shrimp, worth $1.36 billion, followed by lobster and crab.

At Alibaba’s Hema — a groceries chain that’s the major supply centre of local and imported fresh foods in many developed cities — you can pick fish delicacies right out of the tank. You can take away your purchase, have it cooked and prepared for you, or delivered to your home within thirty minutes.

Consumers in lower-tiered cities have a growing interest in foreign foods.

However, in areas of China where such fresh suppliers are not yet widely available, traditional supermarket models assume the main supply function for fresh food.

Consumers in lower-tiered cities have a growing interest in foreign foods. For businesses, it’s an opportunity to establish a presence in less saturated markets -– allowing you to build your brand at the pace you want. It’s also an opportunity to use cultural knowledge in marketing to boost sales.

In China, foods with optimistic connotations become extremely popular during the New Year period. Fish symbolizes the surplus of wealth accumulated during the coming year. Exporters can tap into that market with additional perceptions of foreign food.

Top tips for exporters: KEY DATES

Timing is the key — if you’re committed to launching your brand for the Chinese New Year, please note the following indicative deadlines for completing arrangements (compliance, documentation, negotiations, logistics arrangements, marketing, securing advertising space, etc.) that would have to be met in order to qualify for Chinese New Year promotions:

YearLunar New Year dateOptimal target dateTraditional trade deadline (new exporters)Cross-border trade deadline (new exporters)Participation deadline (active exporters)
202025 Janmid-March 2019eom-July 2019August 2019September 2019
202112 Febmid-March 2020mid-July 2020eom-July 2020September 2020

Note: platforms and retailers have different recruitment plans and vary in KPIs — as a rule of thumb, the more time you allow the higher chance of success for your brand, achieve wider campaign coverage, higher ROI, and ultimately repeat sales.

Contact ACOLINK today for key dates and product launch & promotion opportunities — our teams work hand-in-hand with our partners, retailers, distributors, category managers; we know their critical timing and processes — we’ll help you come up with and deliver a realistic strategy.

Liu adds that more and more Chinese customers are willing to buy imported fish they believe comes from a clean-water environment – providing better taste and health benefits – and are willing to pay higher prices for the quality.

Foods as celebration

Ms Ma transporting empty boxes back to the supermarket warehouse for recycling / Photo by Quan

There’s a lot of imported food in our store (…) the management plans to set up a special ’imported goods area’ in the store next year.Ms Ma, sales assistant

As well as fresh foods, brands can use holiday periods to launch gift-box or family-sized products.

During the New Year, people meet friends and relatives at home. The host usually takes out candy and snacks, like gourmet cookies, to entertain guests.

Ma, a salesperson in the same supermarket as Liu, says, “This year, people preferred to buy foreign candy gift-boxes, using it as a gift or to try flavours they haven’t before.”

A survey carried out by iClick shows that, in 2017, 53% of Chinese consumers purchased imported snacks and 49% purchased some type of imported candy.

For brands, the mix-packed products are an opportunity to showcase a wider range of your products -– establishing direct consumer interest in the products they might not have tried before.

“This year, people prefer to buy foreign candy gift-boxes, using it as a gift or to try flavours they haven’t before.”Ms Liu, sales assistant

It’s also important to consider the outer packaging. Small touches like gold or red wrapping and New Year’s wishes will go a long way. Many popular local and imported products also have special versions for children that include toys or stickers as gifts.

Next step

Chinese Festivals are a great way to tap into a market when the consumers are more eager to try exciting, new products. Exporters need to be agile in how and where their products are sold, and being visible to buyers is the key.

ACOLINK services launch brands on social visibility pathways to optimise sales and accelerate growth through the Chinese market. Contact us to get started and don’t forget to subscribe for updates, alerts, and breaking news.

Article by Quan — LetsDoChina.org Contributor

Currently studying International Business with Communication Studies at the University of Nottingham (China, Ningbo campus). Member of the Institute of Asian and Pacific Studies (IAPS) China. Strong interest in emerging technologies as well as media market in China. Amateur novelist.