29 April 2015
Children’s Clothing Market in China: Increasing Brand Awareness
Over recent years, the growing demand for children’s clothing has been more apparent in China than in many other countries and regions. In large part, this is due to the country’s stable economic growth, the enhanced purchasing power of parents, as well as higher expectations as to the design and quality of children’s apparel. The implementation of the two-child policy and the stable birth rate has also had an impact. As more and more big companies and foreign childrenswear brands enter the mainland’s children’s clothing market, parents are displaying an increased awareness of options on offer.
According to focus group discussions organised by HKTDC Research in January 2015, many mainland parents believed they would be assured of finding “stylish” items with “character” when they bought famous brands. They also maintained that such items would increase the self-confidence of their kids and provide parents with a sense of pride. In order give their children greater individuality, some parents even tried to buy foreign brands not yet available in Chinese stores, typically by resorting to overseas online shopping websites.
Increasing Brand Awareness
Just over 10 years ago, the mainland children’s apparel market was still relatively undeveloped, and there were only a few well-known brands in the sector. As the economy grew, a number of mainland companies began developing their own children's clothing brands, including TQ-bebe and Minipink. In recent years, foreign companies, too, have started to see the potential of the baby and children’s market on the mainland.
A number of high-end international brands, such as Armani, Burberry and Bonpoint, as well as several mass-appeal labels, including GAP, Zara and Uniqlo, have all ventured into the mainland children’s clothing market. In face of the wider selection of childrenswear brands, mainland parents are showing an increased interest and awareness of the options available across the sector.
Internet access has also sped up the spread of information, so much so that the new generation of parents habitually go online to research information about baby and children’s products. Such information is often shared through social media groups. As a result, even foreign childrenswear brands without retail outlets on the mainland can build a reputation among parent communities in China. For example, the US brands Carter’s and Children’s Place are not carried by any stores on the mainland, but they were frequently cited by focus group participants. Foreign brands that have set up specialty stores on the mainland, such as Paw in Paw from South Korea, Old Navy from the US and H&M from Sweden, are undoubtedly among the more well-known for mainland parents.
Individuality Highlighted by Brand Products
As children grow up, parents’ concerns about their apparel extend beyond safety and comfort to “good taste” and “individuality”, with increasing focus on the design and brand’s style. This is particularly the case with children aged three years and above, many of whom have started attending kindergartens and interest groups. As children start to engage in more activities outside the home and develop social circles of their own, parents frequently look to dress them differently from other children so as to attract attention and admiration, as well as to help build their self-confidence. Several participants said they bought brand-name clothing for their children to cultivate their “temperament” and “good taste”, as this was also a reflection of the parents’ good taste and gave them a sense of pride. They reckoned that famous brands readily offered “stylish” items with “character” that could help highlight their children’s individuality.
A number of participants said their social circles fell into the high-income bracket and the children of their friends were usually dressed in top-end international brands. As a result, they were driven by a degree of competiveness, to also buy famous international brand apparel for their children in order to show off their wealth and good taste. Although young children had no brand awareness, parents would take pictures as proof that their children were always “given the best”.
To pursue product differentiation and meet parental demand for “stylish” clothing with “character”, some brands have introduced “grown-up” looks into their childrenswear. Designs and styles of adult clothing, such as hammer pants and slim-fit miniskirts, have been applied to children’s apparel. Some forum participants disapproved of these items on the grounds that they would hinder movement and make children look older than their actual age. Others didn't dismiss these items, and would consider them if the style fitted the occasion. In order to create a good impression at wedding banquets or school admission interviews, for example, parents would tend to favour formal, more mature outfits for their children.
Children’s apparel in “grown-up” designs may be similar to adult clothing in style, but a number of participants expected the design details to account for the needs of small children. When it comes to winter jackets, for example, which usually come in high-neck designs, children have shorter necks and can easily be hurt under the chin by zipper closures. In line with this, parents often check if these jackets come with zipper-end linings or scratch-free closures. Certain varieties of ornamentation found on adult clothing, such as sequins, rivets and crystals, are also considered not suitable for children’s apparel. For parents, the most important considerations for childrenswear are still safe design and comfortable materials.
Child’s Preference Matters
As children become older, and particularly after they start going to school, they begin to express their own preferences as to what clothes they want to wear. Parents usually follow what their children want. Participants with children aged 3-6 years said that they went clothes shopping with their children, many of whom were primarily attracted to printed designs or to garment’s featuring cartoon figures. According to a number of participants, children aged 3-6 mostly favour clothing in bright colours with prominent prints of animals or cartoon figures. For example, boys generally prefer T-shirts with prints of cars, while girls opt for lacy dresses. As a result, most children’s clothing tends to be colourful with distinct prints.
The focus group discussions revealed that parents with children aged 3-6 had more opportunities than those with children aged below three years to go out as a family with friends and relatives. From time to time, school-aged children had to attend school functions with their families. Some participants said they hoped manufacturers would offer more parent-child clothing ranges, catering for children aged 3-6 and their parents, so as to highlight the family unit at such functions. At present, only a few clothing brands on the mainland offer a parent-child series, and most of them are either sportswear or sweatshirts. Brand operators must be very careful when designing parent-child series, as parents are not fond of those that look too childish.
Overseas Online Shopping for Foreign Brand Products
To give their children some individuality, a number of parents have even tried to buy foreign brands not yet available in mainland stores, primarily via overseas online shopping websites. According to some participants, more frequent overseas vacations and business trips have exposed them to foreign-branded childrenswear. Friends, relatives and social media groups are also sources of information about different brands of children’s apparel. Parents try to discover more about these brands through online searches, which acts to enhance their brand awareness and interest. While some foreign childrenswear brands have not yet established physical stores on the Chinese mainland, the logistics and distribution networks of their online stores extend to China. Some participants were already buying foreign brand products, such as Carter’s and OshKosh B’gosh from the US, on overseas online shopping websites.
Advice for Hong Kong Companies
With increasing brand awareness and interest, mainland parents believe they can readily find “stylish” items with “character” when they buy famous brands. These are seen as likely to increase the confidence of the kids and give parents a sense of pride. Hong Kong companies may build up different styles and images for their brands and collections, such as the “preppy look” and the “country look”, so as to enhance the appeal of their brands and products.
No matter how unique the styles and designs are, the prime concern should be the practical needs of children. For example, elastic materials can be used to make slim-fit pants for active children, allowing them to run, climb and move about more easily. Moreover, parents also welcome childrenswear with functional features. For instance, underwear with heat dissipating, sweat absorbent and antibacterial functions is seen as good for the summer months.
In view of the increasing demand on the mainland for parent-child ranges and children’s preferences for bright colours and large prints, brand operators should strike a balance between the two and produce designs that have cross-appeal. For example, they can licence the right to use popular cartoon or animation characters in their designs and roll out “cross-media” collections. It should be noted that although most children favour the main characters of cartoons or animated movies, some also have a special liking for the supporting characters. Thus, Hong Kong companies should not focus their designs on the main characters alone.
Although mainland parents are beginning to pay more attention to childrenswear brands, their primary concern is still the materials and design safety aspects of the products. Apart from developing different styles and images for their brands and collections, Hong Kong companies should also exercise stringent controls on product quality and safety standards so that their products will appeal to parents and stand out in this highly competitive market.
 Participants in the focus group discussions were mothers of children under six years of age. All of them had bought clothing and accessories with a price tag of Rmb120 or more for their children in the past three months. Participants from Guangzhou and Shanghai had a monthly household income of Rmb12,000 or above, while those of Wuhan and Chengdu had a monthly household income of Rmb8,000 or above.