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Fit for Purpose: The Mainland's Digital Sporting Goods Revolution

Digitally-enhanced sporting equipment, allowing for performance and health monitoring, is an essential part of many mainlanders' fitness regime, with social media compatibility a must for the success of any new launch in the sector.

Photo: In demand by overseas golfers: The WICA personal trainer.
In demand by overseas golfers: The WICA personal trainer.
Photo: In demand by overseas golfers: The WICA personal trainer.
In demand by overseas golfers: The WICA personal trainer.

Over recent years, high-tech sporting goods have proved something of a hit, with such products as smart fitness bands and sports glasses stimulating strong consumer demand across the mainland. According to industry specialists, the overall consumer sporting goods sector will become increasingly dominated by high-tech devices, particularly those incorporating smart functions and data tracking features. Buoyed by such huge potential demand, the high-tech sporting goods market is now seen as offering considerable opportunities for investors.

According to figures from Alibaba, China's e-commerce giant, sales of sporting goods on its Tmall and Taobao online shopping platforms totalled more than Rmb100 billion in 2015. Overall, some 400 million purchases were made, while the average age of shoppers continued to trend downwards. Perhaps unsurprisingly, young people are generally more receptive to innovative ideas and products, particularly when it comes to high-tech gadgets.

While there is no authoritative and definitive information yet available with regard to China's high-tech sporting goods market, figures released by Xiaomi, a smart band manufacturer, show that sales of its first-generation fitness band were valued in excess of Rmb6 million, just a fraction of the sale of such products across all producers and distributors.

Profusion of High-Tech Products

Searches on a number of shopping websites, including Tmall, clearly demonstrate the vast range of styles and types of high-tech sporting goods now available. One popular example is a particular brand of smart running shoes, currently on sale for around Rmb349.

Photo: Smart basketball shoes and badminton rackets.
Smart basketball shoes and badminton rackets.
Photo: Smart basketball shoes and badminton rackets.
Smart basketball shoes and badminton rackets.

Thanks to their built-in chip, the shoes can be linked to an app installed on Xiaomi sports watches. This then allows you to track the running route, distance covered and calories consumed by the user, as well as their speed and pace.

A huge variety of other products with built-in sensors are also available, including smart bands, smart watches, smart basketballs and smart badminton rackets. Overall, virtually any product that facilitates the tracking of fitness data is proving popular with consumers.

While popular, however, many of these products still fail to meet the full range of consumer expectations. Typical of such criticism, one online reviewer lamented that many of these products were virtually interchangeable, with their novelty soon wearing off. More seriously, there have been complaints about the accuracy of such systems, with one particular brand of fitness band being regularly singled out as particularly unreliable.

In spite of such concerns, many manufacturers of sporting goods are still prioritising the development of technological innovations. In line with this, at a recent sporting goods and equipment exhibition in Beijing, new generation of sensor-equipped products made their debut.

Photo: Soft and warm: Carbon fibre vests.
Soft and warm: Carbon fibre vests.
Photo: Soft and warm: Carbon fibre vests.
Soft and warm: Carbon fibre vests.

Among this new generation of high-tech sporting goods is the WICA personal trainer. This consists of a high-speed, high-definition video camera, complete with a wireless smartphone app that tracks the user's exercise movements. It also offers coaching advice as to how to perform exercises safely and scientifically.

The WICA personal trainer was launched December last year, with its ease of use being described as a key factor in its popularity. Explaining its appeal, a company spokesman said: "It is particularly popular with overseas golfers. More recently, a number of clubs across the mainland have also begun to trial the product."

In this sector, high-tech is often used as a means to train consumers to exercise in a more scientifically-approved manner. According to one company, its "hypoxic exercise" concept can even enhance an individual's aerobic capacity, as well as their exercise proficiency.

The hypoxic training system, a proprietary initiative on the part of the company, can apparently simulate low oxygen environments, such as the partial pressure in place at different altitudes, allowing players to adapt and adjust accordingly.

Such high-tech facilities, however, are rarely available in the majority of mainland gyms. According to industry statistics, the number of such gyms has virtually doubled every year since 2014. Inevitably, this has also seen a huge surge in the number of people employed in the sector. Such continuous and sustained growth has seen many come to believe that there is now huge potential market for technical innovations in the sector, including the wider introduction of hypoxic exercise equipment.

Aside from new technology, a number of new materials are now also being used in the sporting goods sector. In line with this, one state-owned technology enterprise in Beijing has developed a new range of carbon fibre outdoor sportswear.

Explaining the benefit of this clothing range, a company spokesman said: "Currently, the manufacturers of most carbon fibre clothing on the market tend to focus on highlighting its softness and high-tensile strength. We, however, are the first to use it as a means of keeping warm."

Style and Connectivity

According to WICA, domestically-produced goods have a particularly bright future in the market. Expanding on this, a company spokesman said: "For a long time, the only electronic sporting goods available on the mainland had been sourced overseas. Gradually, however, Chinese companies have developed their own products."

Overall, the development of high-tech sporting goods in China began only relatively recently, with no market leaders yet to emerge. As a result, mainland brands primarily attempt to woo consumers by offering low prices.

Photo: WeChat WeRun: Peer-shared fitness data.
WeChat WeRun: Peer-shared fitness data.
Photo: WeChat WeRun: Peer-shared fitness data.
WeChat WeRun: Peer-shared fitness data.

Typically, then, a domestically-produced carbon fibre sportswear item sells for less than Rmb1,000, while the WICA personal trainer is available for less than Rmb2,000. Online shopping site searches also showed that a pair of smart running shoes can be purchased for as little as Rmb200-300, while a smart band can sell for Rmb100 or less.

Although prices remain low, consumer expectations of product quality is continuing to rise. One outdoor sports club manager believes, however, that as living standard rises, price is less of a prime consideration for consumers.

He said: "The thing that consumers really care about is whether a particular kind of exercise is right for them or not. The actual design of the product is then the next concern."

Although secondary, he maintains that the design and visual appeal of a product remains significant. Citing a recent example, he said he had recently declined to install one particular company's exercise sled as the design was not stylish enough to appeal to users.

Another consumer requirement of growing import is social media connectivity. Many young mainlanders are now notoriously keen to share their fitness data on WeChat Moments, looking to attract "likes" and comments from their peers.

As well as the highly-popular WeChat WeRun, a sharing app for distance runners, there are a variety of other social media outlets compatible with sensor-enabled sporting products. The aforementioned smart running shoes, for instance, can directly share running data via WeChat Moments.

It is clear that digitally-enhanced sporting goods are now generally preferred by consumers. With this in mind, social media connectivity should be considered as a prime design requirement in any such item looking to gain market share.

Cheng Gong, Special Correspondent, Beijing

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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