– How many more "marble palace" retail-lifestyle projects can China take? None in Beijing, that’s for sure. Apart from there now being too many malls with poor occupancy rates in the capital, it seems that a fair few younger consumers are looking for something different. On a recent Saturday, the malls were less than buzzing, while the fairly recently conceived Nanluoguxiang hutong was packed with shoppers and browsers all day and diners and drinkers all night. Nanluoguxiang is all independent – not a Starbucks in sight – a mixture of fashion, crafts, art and café-bars. All busy. Similarly, in Shanghai the revamped portion of Wujiang Lu food street with a plethora of identical chain Costa Coffees, Coldstone Creamerys and Yoshinoyas is relatively calm while the older, lower-end part of the street, packed full of traditional food stalls, is crazy busy all day. It seems many consumers are voting against what the French aptly call "Londonization" and looking for something a bit more interesting.
– Talking of hutong strolling reminds me of what appears to be China’s new collective hobby – photography. Last year, digital SLR cameras were hot sellers, thanks to a combination of competitive prices and usability. The other reason is that it’s mainly a male hobby and the new digitals come with a bewildering array of buttons, settings and ever-lengthening lenses. With the de rigueur camera bag over the shoulder, now everyone can look like they work for National Geographic. Still, that so many people spend their weekends snapping hutongs rather than the cookie cutter office blocks of the CBD might help a new generation see their cityscape through new eyes.
– The slowdown at the end of 2008 was ultimately more about the deteriorating property market than exports. Export growth rates held up at around 20% throughout most of 2008 before plummeting to -2.2% year-on-year in November. By contrast, the property investment cycle turned mid-year, falling from a 38% growth rate in June to November’s 7.7%. Property transactions will be a key indicator to watch in the first two quarters of the year. Just before Christmas, I surveyed some showrooms for mid-range apartments in Shanghai, Beijing and 10 tier-two cities. All reported an uptick in visitors, though they were still cautious. Still, many people are apparently betting on deals coming through soon. If so, then you’d expect the transaction volume to rise again, with a subsequent boost to retail sales as people move in from the spring through to the second half of the year. What’s interesting is how so many analysts focus on Beijing and Shanghai only and therefore miss the pent-up-demand-in-the-hinterland story. This is leading to some very skewed thinking.
– In recent months there has been a rush of announcements from major sourcers about pressing suppliers to improve environmental standards. Alexandra Harney, the author of The China Price, an impressive book about factory conditions in China, tells me these initiatives are having some strange effects. One of the most amusing stories she’s heard recently is that due to the growth in demand for recycled materials in the apparel industry, the price of used plastic bottles has surged. Some manufacturers have started buying new plastic bottles straight from the plastic bottle factory, recycling them, and presenting the material they produce as sustainable. Not really the most eco-friendly approach.
– I’ve noticed the English phrase "on hold" is creeping into a lot of conversations at the moment as people guard their cash flows in the recession. A smallish logistics provider tells me a track-and-trace system he was planning to introduce is "on hold" for the time being, while a chain of stores that was going to launch an improved e-invoicing system tells me it’s now "on hold" indefinitely.