How to reach Chinese millennials

China's millennials are driving growth for the country's e-commerce market. Here's how you can make them your customer.
China's millennials are driving growth for the country's e-commerce market. Here's how you can make them your customer.
27 October 2023 •

Looking to trade with China? Well then, the country’s 400 million millennials should be on your radar – they are tech savvy, love foreign brands, and have more disposable income than previous generations. Here’s a quick guide to help your small business sell big.

Exporting to China: the millennial factor

In the 1980s, China made some very big, bold decisions. The one-child policy slowed the country’s dangerous over-population, but changed its culture forever. Furthermore, the economic liberalization that started with the rise of Deng Xiaoping created unprecedented levels of wealth in a country that was largely unaccustomed to it. This combination of circumstances produced a uniquely affluent and individualistic generation - and lots of opportunities for international brands exporting to China.

According to a report by Fung Business Intelligence, most people in this so-called ‘privileged generation’ are only children in often, relatively wealthy families. For many, this means that in stark contrast to their European and American contemporaries, no student debt or crippling accommodation costs.

So, many Chinese millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) have money to spend. And they are helping China to grow its e-commerce market by a projected 12.23 percent per year, between 2023 and 2027, with fashion items and consumer electronics dominating their shopping lists.

So, how can global brands exporting to China reach them? Here are some things to think about when targeting this growing, affluent, and influential group.

You can find them online

Social media is the main source information for 70 percent of Chinese millennials and they spend almost twice as much time as Americans watching online videos.
Social media is the main source information for 70 percent of Chinese millennials and they spend almost twice as much time as Americans watching online videos.

In January 2022, there were 1.02 billion internet users in China, and those between the ages of 30 and 39 make up the largest proportion of these at 20.3 percent. So if you’re an e-marketer looking to reach millennials, trading with China is a great strategy.

They dominate China’s social platforms

WeChat and Weibo, China’s leading social platforms, are dominated by millennials. Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok) is also a great channel on which to engage with audiences and build a loyal following (around 80 percent of Douyin users are aged between 18 and 45).

Because of their continual presence on social channels, when Chinese millennials are enthusiastic about something, it spreads quickly.

They’re driving Chinese e-commerce

In 2023, 25 to 44-year-olds (millennials are now 27 to 42) account for 55.8 percent of e-commerce users in China3 – so considerably over half. Popular e-commerce platforms include Tmall and, while at the luxury end of the scale are Tmall Luxury Pavilion, on which Farfetch China launched in 2021.

Live-streaming is a big part of Chinese e-commerce culture. It involves live streaming video content on social media platforms such as Douyin and the RED (a platform similar to Instagram). An influencer or seller showcases a product and interacts with viewers in real-time and viewers can purchase the product directly through the live stream. Douyin’s version, Douyin Shopping, has become a major channel for e-commerce sales.

Their preferences are evolving

A 2017 HSBC survey found that 70 percent of millennials aged 19 to 36 in China are homeowners – the highest rate among the nine countries surveyed, including the U.S. (35 percent) and U.K. (31 percent). Homeowners are more likely to buy for the home than renters, so if you’re marketing homeware and decorative items, this is a very good place to look for customers.

Millennials in China are discerning and demanding, valuing authenticity and uniqueness. Their curiosity has led to booming cross-border retail e-commerce sales. Foreign brands exporting to China should note the most popular product categories: personal care and beauty, apparel and accessories, electronics and gadgets, food and beverages, and baby and children’s products.

As a general trend, sales of luxury goods have tripled in China over the last decade or so, although this has slowed a little post-Covid. The pandemic has brought an increased focus on health and wellness among Chinese consumers which has also affected shopping preferences, leading to a growing demand for products such as health supplements, fitness equipment, and natural and organic food products. On the other hand, a once burgeoning wine consumption in China has been dropping by roughly 260 million bottles a year since 2018 and this has been further depressed by the numerous Covid lockdowns.

Just as with younger people all over the planet, corporate social responsibility is required of every brand millennials are likely to approve – and, for some of them, the pandemic has brought a more extreme change of values, as shown in the ‘lying flat’ or tang ping movement.

They travel extensively

Driven by a thirst for enriching new experiences, millennials are drawn to traveling
Driven by a thirst for enriching new experiences, millennials are drawn to traveling

According to an October 2016 study by Airbnb, 93% of millennials in China consider traveling an important part of their identity. In fact, they ranked travel at number one; above paying off debt, investing, saving, or buying a home or car.

Further research by Kantar TNS shows that, apart from travel, Chinese millennials also value individuality, immediate gratification, novel experiences and self-expression. This is the definition of open-mindedness, so if you’re selling global culture, China is buying.

They spend on Singles' Day

China’s Singles' Day falls on November 11 (11/11) – also known as Double 11. It is the biggest online shopping event in the world, usually overshadowing Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. For example, in 2021, shoppers spent a record of more than 952 billion yuan (US$134 billion). So it is a great time of year to target China’s largest proportion of online shoppers: millennials.

Chinese holidays that contribute to peak seasons for e-commerce.
Chinese holidays that contribute to peak seasons for e-commerce.

They have high expectations

International brands trading with China should be aware of Chinese consumers' expectations when buying luxury items. Exclusivity, collaborations with local celebrities and influencers, personalized recommendations, VIP access, and a seamless shopping experience are all highly valued – as of course, is convenient, fast, and reliable shipping with a trusted logistics partner such as DHL.

DHL DTP (Duties & Tax Paid) is available through DHL’s Trade Automation Service - it is designed to help cross-border sellers ship products to China in a way that’s convenient for Chinese consumers. The seller pays the import duties, taxes, and other fees associated with shipping the product, so the recipient has no additional costs or fees. By offering DHL DTP, international sellers can provide a seamless, hassle-free shopping experience, which can increase customer satisfaction and loyalty.

How long can this growth continue?

Lastly, it is worth asking ‘is this sustainable’? Although the Chinese economy has experienced uncertainty in recent years – and has become more inward-facing since the trade war with the U.S. – the country’s leadership is motivated to keep it growing. Chinese spending power continues to grow, and China’s love of foreign brands shows no sign of abating. So if you’re wondering whether to reach out to Chinese millennials, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

Exporting to China: a final tip

Businesses wishing to trade with China should remember it is a huge country, with extreme regional and cultural variations. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach; rather, brands should do their research and ensure their marketing is always tailored to the specific customer groups they are targeting. Check out our dedicated China Country Guide for more insights!

This story was first published on DHL Discover and was republished with permission.