Tang Yue, a 27-year-old teacher from the city of Guilin in southwest China, steam-presses a blue dress and takes dozens of photographs before picking one to clinch her 200th online sale.
For a growing number of Chinese like Tang, hit by job losses, furloughs and salary cuts, the consumer economy has begun to spin in reverse. They are no longer buying – they are selling.
Instead of emerging from the coronavirus pandemic and returning to shopping habits that helped drive the world’s second-largest economy, many young people are offloading possessions and embracing a new-found ethic for hard times: Less is more.
With Tang’s monthly salary of about 7,000 yuan ($988), the self-described shopaholic said she has bought everything from Chanel lipsticks to Apple’s latest iPad in the past three years.
But the adrenaline rush that comes with binge-shopping is gone, said Tang, whose wages have been slashed with the suspension of all the classes on tourism management she usually teaches.
“The coronavirus outbreak was a wake-up call,” she said. “When I saw the collapse of so many industries, I realised I had no financial buffer should something unfortunate happen to me.”
There is no guarantee that the nascent minimalist trend will continue once the coronavirus crisis is fully over, but if it does, it could seriously damage China’s consumer sector and hurt thousands of businesses from big retailers to street-corner restaurants, gyms and beauty salons.
To be sure, there are signs that pent-up demand will drive a rush of spending as authorities reopen malls, leisure venues and tourist spots. In South Korea, the first major economy outside of China to be hit by the virus, people thronged malls this weekend to go “revenge shopping” to make up for time lost in lockdown.
Although there are some signs that a similar trend will take hold in China, where some upscale malls are starting to get busy, luxury firm Kering SA – which owns Gucci, Balenciaga and other fashion brands – has said it is hard to predict how or when sales in China might come back.
A recent McKinsey & Co survey showed that between 20-30 percent of respondents in China said they would continue to be cautious, either consuming slightly less or, in a few cases, a lot less.
“The lockdown provided consumers with a lot of time and reasons to reflect and consider what is important to them,” said Mark Tanner, managing director at Shanghai-based research and marketing consultancy China Skinny.
“With much more of their days spent in their homes, consumers also have more time and reasons to sort through things they don’t feel they need – so they’re not living around clutter that is common in many apartments.”
Tang made a spreadsheet to keep track of her nearly 200 cosmetic products and hundreds of pieces of clothing. She then marked a few essentials in red that she wanted to keep. In the past two months, she has sold items worth nearly 5,000 yuan ($708) on second-hand marketplaces online.
Bargain-hunting online has become a new habit for some Chinese as the stigma that once hung over second-hand goods has begun to fade.
Idle Fish, China’s biggest online site for used goods, hit a record daily transaction volume in March, its parent company Alibaba told Reuters News Agency.
Government researchers predict that transactions for used goods in China may top one trillion yuan ($141bn) this year.
Posts with the hashtag #ditchyourstuff have trended on Chinese social media in recent weeks, garnering more than 140 million views.
Jiang Zhuoyue, 31, who works as an accountant at a traditional Chinese medicine company in Beijing – one of the few industries that may benefit from the health crisis – has also decided to turn to a simpler life.
“I used to shop too much and could be easily lured by discounts,” said Jiang. “One time Sephora offered 20 percent off for all goods, I then bought a lot of cosmetics because I feel I’m losing money if I don’t.”
Jiang, the mother of a nine-month-old baby, said she recently sold nearly 50 pieces of used clothing as the lockdown gave her the opportunity to clear things out. “It also offered me a chance to rethink what’s essential to me, and the importance of doing financial planning,” she said.
Eleven Li, a 23-year-old flight attendant, said she used to spend her money on all manner of celebrity-endorsed facial masks, snacks, concert tickets and social media activity, but now has no way to fund her spending.
“I just found a new job late last year, then COVID-19 came along, and I haven’t been able to fly once since I joined, and I’ve gotten no salary at all,” said Li, who said she was trying to sell her Kindle.
Some are even selling their pets, as they consider leaving big cities like Beijing and Shanghai where the high cost of living is finally catching up with them.
Cure for consumption?
As the pandemic comes under control in China, the government is gradually releasing cities from lockdown, easing transport restrictions and encouraging consumers to venture back into malls and restaurants by giving out billions-worth of cash vouchers, each worth between 10-100 yuan ($1.42-14.16).
But many people say they are still worried about job security and potential wage cuts because of the struggling economy. Nationwide retail sales have plunged every month so far this year.
Xu Chi, a Shanghai-based senior strategic analyst with Zhongtai Securities, said some Chinese consumers may prove the “21 Day Habit Theory”, a popular scientific proposition that it only takes that long to establish new habits.
“We believe people’s spending patterns follow the well-known theory, which means most people in China, having been cooped up at home for more than a month and not having binge-shopped, may break the habit and not return to their old ways,” Xu said.
Jiang said she was determined not to return to her free-spending ways and planned to cook more at home.
“I’ll turn to cheaper goods for some luxury brands,” she said. “I’ll choose Huawei’s smartphone because [Apple’s] iPhone has too much brand premium.”
Tang, who has recently used 100 yuan of shopping coupons to stock up on food, is going to hold the purse strings even tighter.
“I’ve set my monthly budget at 1,000 yuan,” she said. “Including one – and just one – bottle of bubble tea.”