Tighter purses mean cosmetics market losing its gloss

Updated: 2012-11-09 09:36

By Xu Junqian in Shanghai (China Daily)

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Study shows imports drop 13% as buyers resist the temptation of little luxuries

International cosmetics giants are unlikely to benefit from the "lipstick effect" in China, the theory that says consumers will spend more on little luxuries during a recession, according to a new research on the sector.

"We found that the cosmetics market in China is in sync with the overall economy," said Zhou Ting, associate professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing and the lead author of the China Luxury Report 2012, released on Thursday.

"The import of cosmetics and perfume is rather stagnant, affected by the wider, slower growth in the Chinese economy."

During the first half of 2012, data from the General Administration of Customs of China show that import volume of cosmetic products dropped 13 percent year-on-year, and the import value dropped by 14 percent.

"China's luxury market is in its early stages of development, with buyers of cosmetics and fragrance still price-sensitive. And in difficult times, little luxuries for them are just unaffordable white elephants," said Zhou.

Since 2006, the compound annual growth rates of imported cosmetics and fragrances to China have remained in negative territory, at -19 percent and -28 percent respectively, while the growth rates for yachts, for instance, and top quality leather bags, have enjoyed increases of 732 percent, and 133 percent, showing that the Chinese "super-rich are barely affected" by the general economic slowdown, added Zhou.

Wang Jiajun, an analyst with the Shanghai-based consulting firm, China Market Research Group, noted that it is important to differentiate between a decline and a slowdown.

"Estee Lauder and l'Oreal in the first half of this year both saw double-digit growth in China.

"The cosmetics market in China is still growing, but just at a slower pace than in previous years though," said Wang.

The slowing economy aside, Wang said he believes that as cosmetics brands have expanded their presence from first- and second-tier markets to low-tiered cities, consumers there still lack an understanding of how and why to use top cosmetics products, leading to slightly slower-than-expected growth in these new markets.

Online shopping platforms, too, are taking a growing share of the market, if not a lion's one.

Cosmetics products sold on taobao.com, the largest online shopping bazaar in China, for instance, grossed 560 million yuan ($89 million) in 2008 - the latest numbers available - but surely much less than current values, said experts.

In late August, the US cosmetics and fragrance manufacturer Clinique, owned by Estee Lauder Group, announced that it would cut prices of four of its skincare products, including its most popular Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion, by as much as 30 percent in the Chinese mainland - the first time an international cosmetics company had reduced product prices in a country more used to annual price rises.

"The main purpose of the price cuts are to bring customers back into department stores, to enjoy better service and after-sales service," Estee Lauder was reported to have said in a statement.

Retail analysts viewed the cuts, however, as a move to narrow the historic price gap between top-end products sold in China and other international markets, which exist because of high import taxes in China.

Wang said online sales will become a key driver for the sector in future.

"The online channel is seeing strong growth, but still needs some time to really take off and become dominant."