McKinsey Quarterly

Meet the Chinese consumer of 2020

By Yuval Atsmon and Max Magni

Consumer companies know China is important. To succeed there, though, they need to understand the economic and social changes that are redefining the way that Chinese consumers spend.

Most large consumer-facing companies realize that they will need China to power their growth in the next decade. But to keep pace, these companies will also need to understand the economic, societal, and demographic changes shaping the profiles of consumers and the way they spend. This is no easy task not only because of the fast pace of growth and subsequent changes in the Chinese way of life but also because of the vast economic and demographic differences across the country.

These differences are set to become more marked, with significant implications for companies that fail to grasp them. Since 2005, McKinsey has conducted annual consumer surveys in China, interviewing a total of more than 60,000 people in upward of 60 cities. Our surveys have tracked the growth of incomes, shifting patterns of expenditure, rising expectations sometimes in line with those of the respondents’ Western counterparts and sometimes not—and the development of many different consumer segments. Those surveys now provide insights to help us focus on the future. We cannot, of course, predict it with certainty, and external shocks might confound any forecast. But our understanding of consumer trends to date, coupled with an analysis of the economic and demographic factors that will further shape them in the next decade, serve as a useful lens for contemplating the profile of the Chinese consumer in 2020.

Changing demographics

Many of the changes taking place in China are common features of rapid industrialization: rising incomes, urban living, better education, postponed life stages, and greater mobility. Japan saw similar changes in the 1950s and 1960s, as did South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s.

But some unique factors are also at work, such as the government’s one-child policy and the marked economic imbalances among regions. Our analysis reveals important insights into the likely demographic and socio-demographic profiles of Chinese consumers at the end of this decade.

Changes in economic profiles have been and will continue to be the most important trend shaping the consumer landscape. The Chinese are certainly getting richer fast: the per-household disposable income of urban consumers will double between 2010 and 2020, from about $4,000 to about $8,000. That will be close to South Korea’s current standard of living but still a long way from its level in some developed countries, such as the United States (about $35,000) and Japan (about $26,000).

The current vast differences in income levels will persist, however, although the numbers at each level will shift dramatically. At present, the great majority of the population consists of “value” consumers—those living in households with annual disposable incomes between $6,000 and $16,000 (equivalent to 37,000 to 106,000 renminbi), just enough to cover basic needs. “Mainstream” consumers, relatively well-to-do households with annual disposable income of between $16,000 and $34,000 (equivalent to 106,000 to 229,000 renminbi), form a very small group by comparison. China has fewer than 14 million such households, representing only 6 percent of the urban population. A tiny group of “affluent” consumers, whose household income exceeds $34,000, accounts for only 2 percent of the urban population, or 4.26 million households.

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