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Mainland economy welcomes first couch potato crop

Excess commuting times, a reluctance to socialise, enhanced home delivery, ever more competitive pricing and the rapid growth of a door-to-door service industry are all nurturing a new generation of "lazy consumers" across the mainland.

Photo: Online ordering: the end of dining out?
Online ordering: the end of dining out?

"Don't want to go out shopping? Visit yihaodian.com now!" a subway poster urges the many – presumably reluctant – commuters travelling across the mainland's major cities. For the hard of thinking, the message is reinforced by the accompanying visual – a man pressing both hands to his temples in a bid to dispel the stress of out-of-home purchasing. For many, this advertisement has now become a symbol of a new kind of mainland consumer – the "lazy buyer", a subscriber to China's burgeoning "lazy economy".

In the West, they have long had a term for those individuals unwilling to stray far from home, those who prefer to dwell forever in close proximity to their PCs or wide-screen TVs, vegetating on their sofas. Tellingly, they are termed "couch potatoes" and now China clearly has its own variety.

Signs of the emergence of this phenomenon are now ubiquitous on the mainland. Services aimed specifically at couch potatoes can now be found everywhere – food delivery companies, online shopping platforms, grocery delivery agencies, couriers, door-to-door beauty consultants etc. In short, suitably affluent mainlanders, with access to a phone or the Internet, never need to venture outside again.

Commuting overload

Such is the preponderance of this new, seemingly agoraphobic generation, that the term "lazy" has lost some of its former negative connotations, becoming instead more of an indulgent nickname. Many of these Chinese couch potatoes are deemed to not be truly lazy, with some seen as keen to stay at home more to avoid social contact (hikikomori as the Japanese-call such people) than to avoid exertion. To others, they are just viewed as busy individuals, who opt for a simple post-work regimen.

Many theories have emerged to explain this latest social phenomenon. For some, it is the consequence of the mainland's growing traffic problems, with countless numbers of commuters obliged to spend excessive amounts of time just getting to and from work.

According to the 2012 Report on China's New Urbanisation, published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the average commute in Beijing now takes 52 minutes, 14 minutes longer than the national average. Similar extended journey times have been reported in other tier one cities, notably Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

"Mr Zhen", a Beijinger employed in the city's media sector, is typical of this new generation of time-challenged commuters. Reflecting on his daily schedule, he says: "It takes me one and a half hours to reach home – by bus and subway – after leaving work at five o'clock. By the time I get back, my local market is closing up and it's difficult to buy fresh vegetables or meat."

It's not only the over-worked, however, that are tempted by the convenience of the courier economy. Off-the-leash students, enjoying their extended summer break, are also keen users of meal delivery services. Zhen's son, for instance, has amassed home delivery menus from 10 different companies. Typically, Zhen Junior stays at home all day, ordering food to be brought to his door whenever he's hungry. Just a click of his mouse or a quick telephone call brings him whatever his stomach desires. It is the very variety and convenience on offer that has seen sales in this sector shoot up.

It is not just a preference for home-delivery dinning that characterises this emerging Chinese couch potato generation, however. In the case of "Ms Shen", since 2005, she has sourced a huge variety of her daily needs from www.taobao.com, the website long seen as the mainland's answer to Amazon. A veteran of the service, Shen is well-aware of the various discount and sales seasons around the world, frequently using her knowledge to secure cut-price deals.

Explaining her online shopping habits, Shen says: "Many of the things in my home were actually bought online. As well as clothes, home appliances and snacks, I also buy a lot of fruit and vegetables online. My online shopping bills now account for about 90% of my total household expenditure."

Students, as well as householders, have been lured by Taobao's range of online goods. Song Yazhen, currently an undergraduate, says: "My classmates and I always use Taobao to buy skincare products, handbags and snacks. Online shopping is much cheaper than shopping on the high street, and it's also very convenient to have items delivered straight to my dorm."

The convenience of home delivery has been cited as major plus by many online-shoppers. Acknowledging its appeal, Shen says: "For heavy or bulk products, it's great that couriers deliver them straight to my door. This saves me all the hassle of arranging transport."

Photo: Computing not commuting: weary workers order in.
Computing not commuting: weary workers order in.
Photo: Growing trade: mainland couriers are on the rise.
Growing trade: mainland couriers are on the rise.

Delivery de rigueur

Greater Internet penetration and the increased range of online services accessible have, of course, been the major drivers in the growth of the "lazy" economy. According to a report by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a global management consulting company, some 47% of all mainland Internet users will shop online by 2015. With the number of mainland Internet users reaching 591 million as of the end of June 2013, the eventual value of the country's e-commerce sector will inevitably be huge.

According to the China Internet Network Information Center, the total online spending of mainland consumers was Rmb1.26 trillion in 2012, with the average per annum spend in excess of Rmb5,000. Anecdotal proof of the growth of the sector comes from one Taobao operator who claims sales are up around 33% compared to 12 months ago.

This dramatic upturn demand for home delivery is also underlined by a visit to a number of Beijing fast food and drinks outlets, with many members of staff reporting the number of delivery requests has soared. Clearly feeling the pressure, one says: "Every morning, from about 10 o'clock, the calls start coming in, one after another. We are so busy that we can hardly manage. We are now recruiting for additional part-time staff to help out with deliveries."

Typical of this frantic level of operation is Meiminger Shengjian (meaning "no-name pan fry"), a Beijing-based fast food outlet. Outlining his daily routine, one member of the shop's delivery staff says: "Our shop's daily income from food delivery service alone is now close to Rmb10,000. As a result, we have to work far longer hours.

"There are now two shifts of staff. The delivery service starts at 10:30 in the morning and there is then no break until after 2:00pm. In the afternoon, it starts again at about 4:00pm and we typically don't finish until after 10."

Meiminger Shengjian introduced its vegetable delivery option just over a month ago, with free delivery being provided for any order of at least Rmb10. According to Gao Lin, the store's head vegetable buyer, the delivery service has been extremely well-received.

She says: "As many as seven or eight repeat orders have already been placed by some customers. With the service still fairly new, our daily delivery volume is not huge. At the moment it is manageable, with two staff members capable of delivering up to 30 catties (15kg) of vegetables a day."

Signs of strains on the service have now become apparent to many users. One frequent home-delivery customer says: "In the past, I placed food delivery orders half an hour before I wanted to eat. Now I have to do it at least one and a half hours in advance, otherwise I have to eat far later than I want to."

As a knock-on from the growth of the mainland's couch potato economy, it has proved to be a boom period for the country's couriers, with a staggering monthly growth rate of more than 50% for 28 successive months reported in the sector since March 2011.

Photo: Proactive businesses: profiting from lazy consumers.
Proactive businesses: profiting from lazy consumers.

The beauty of home grooming

Aside from increased strain on courier services and delivery staff, the growth in online shopping has created a number of other challenges for retailers. Chief among these is the problem of product returns, a frequent occurrence when clothes purchased online do not fit or when luxury brand items fail to match buyers' expectations.

In order to tackle the issue and to reduce customer dissatisfaction and the costs/lost revenue involved with returns, many online retailers have upgraded their service model. Many companies offering overseas purchase options, for instance, now take orders via Weibo or WeChat, allowing photographs to be transmitted instantly, giving customers a better understanding of the exact products on offer. This interaction goes some way to bridging the gap between online shopping and its conventional counterpart, with this "digital sampling" intended to improve the e-commerce experience.

This improved opportunity to "virtually try before you buy" has been welcomed by many online shopping aficionados. Based on her experience of the practice, Shen says: "Shopping online in this way is far more like shopping at a physical store. It also helps build your desire for the previewed items."

With the rapid uptake in the product sector, it was only a matter of time before the service sector was drawn into the couch potato economy. The demand for door-to-door beauty services, for instance, has boomed, with many consumers preferring to receive such treatments in the comfort of their own homes.

"Miss Yang", a Beijing office worker, is one such convert to the benefits of home grooming. She says: "I am frequently away on business trips these days so, when I am at home, I don't really want to go out anywhere else. As a result, in terms of skincare, the best thing for me is to ask a beautician to visit me at home.

"The at home cost is similar to that in a beauty parlour, but having the service at home allows me to make me better use of my time. There is also no queuing involved."

Confirming this trend, Zheng Jie, the general manager of a Beijing-based door-to-door beauty service company, says has seen a significant rise in at home bookings over recent months.

Explaining how her current business model works, she says: "We only charge a service fee for our door-to-door visits, leaving customers free to choose their own products. This makes them feel more comfortable and even lets them save money. During the visit, our beauticians also suggest other suitable options for customers. It's a service that is proving hugely popular."

According to Mr Yu, a senior figure in the beauty sector, such door-to-door services are still far from the norm. He says: "At present, not many professional parlours are willing to provide home visits. This is something of an oversight and doesn't recognise the changing needs of customers.

"In the future, beauty services will definitely move from being purely product sales operations to encompassing more of a personalised service. Such a change is inevitable and is taking place across a number of industries."

According to many commentators, turning a profit from China's growing number of couch potatoes will require operators to increasingly second guess their requirements and preferences. There is, perhaps, a certain irony that it will inevitably be the more proactive and professional service providers that truly benefit from the "lazy economy".

Zhao Lian, Special Correspondent, Beijing

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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