CHINESE urban consumers fall into three broad categories - the past generation, the ''now'' generation of people aspiring to an increasingly materialistic lifestyle, and the future achievers who would enjoy the comforts of modern consumerism, according to a market researcher. Chris Gabriel, director of qualitative research at Survey Research Group China, has interviewed 1300 consumers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, from children to government officials. To help her build up a picture of the Chinese consumer, they talked about their lives, the products they owned and how they saw future trends. The ''parent'' or ''past'' generation was the least interesting to marketing companies, she told a recent conference on China marketing. Their lives had been characterised by political repression and economic hardship; they had a much lower standard of living; they had fewer and more conservative expectations; and they were the most resistant to change. The group tended to be more conservative with money and not flexible in accepting new products. Lynda Graham, managing director of Saatchi and Saatchi Advertising China, told at the same conference that nearly 80 per cent of China's population was under 45 years, making the past generation the least significant numerically. The ''aspirationals'' or ''now'' generation were, in general, not politically repressed, particularly in Guangzhou. This generation also was increasingly materialistic. ''There is incredible status consciousness. Expectations are very high and consumer spending is much higher,'' said Ms Gabriel. ''Their lifestyles are totally different from their parents.'' She said they enthusiastically welcomed a better quality of life and more leisure time, but were less devoted to housework. ''Women do not want to be at home. They want automation,'' she said. Ms Gabriel added that the Chinese consumer was increasingly brand and quality conscious, favouring convenience and becoming more health conscious, for themselves and their families. There also was a resurgence of an appreciation of beauty, the face as an indication of personal worth, romance and even a touch of hedonism in the ''now'' generation. ''Woman is alive and well on the streets of Beijing,'' said Ms Gabriel. But she warned that audiences in China were becoming increasingly cynical in their evaluation of advertising, and lack of confidence meant they welcomed validation of the product from other sources, such as friends. ''There is a lot of brand switching because of curiosity over new brands. But if they don't deliver, the Chinese consumer will drop the product and ensure it does not have any legs left,'' said Ms Gabriel. Bad as well as good news about a product travelled fast by word-of-mouth, with consumers displaying a ''mind-blowing'' response to promotions such as samples and lucky draws. ''They find them exciting and they feel good because they are treated well,'' she said. As for the generation of future ''achievers'', they already were a powerful influence on consumer spending. ''You often hear women say that they have bought a product because the child asked for it,'' said Ms Gabriel. She also noted geographic differences in consumer attitudes. In Beijing, people tended to be more conventional, educated and knowledgable and were voracious readers, while those in Guangzhou and Shanghai were street-wise, practical and money-oriented. Living space and services available in private homes could not be ignored by marketing companies, as most families still had to share kitchens, bathrooms and toilet facilities. The average size of apartments was 860 square feet in Beijing, 376 to 537 sq ft in Guangzhou, and just 322 sq ft in Shanghai. ''But things are progressing at an incredible rate. There are more high-rise units going up that afford more privacy, which affects spending on things like microwaves and washing machines,'' Ms Gabriel said. Ms Graham said that marketing companies were most interested in the urban populations. ''China is becoming a nation of two populations - the 'haves' in the cities and the 'have-nots' in the rural areas,'' she said. The urban population accounted for about 30 per cent of the total, compared with just over 10 per cent 40 years ago, and urbanisation could reach 36 per cent by the year 2000. Louis Pong, overseas representative of Shanghai First Commercial Bureau's Shanghai Commercial Development Corporation, said that according to the International Monetary Fund, the average Chinese income was just US$370 a year. The real figure, taking into account subsidies such as housing, was between $1,450 and $2,000. About 15 million earned more than $15,000, he told the conference. According to a survey by authorities in Shanghai, the new rich enjoying this high income included private businessmen, people working in the entertainment industry, brokers, agents and dealers of treasury bonds and bills, managers and workers of foreign companies, operators of township enterprises, taxi drivers, returnees from abroad and those with relatives overseas, stock speculators, double-income families, salesmen and senior management personnel, specialised technicians, and employees on overseas postings. ''Incomes are very much understated in China. The way that people can use income is significantly different in China to other markets,'' said Ms Graham. In China, only 11 per cent of household income was spent on rent, utilities, education and transport. The affluent in China was a small but growing sector of the population, ready to pay for the best - from top-of-the-range hair styling products to top watches and Nicam televisions.