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Chinese demand for new tastes driving increase in food and drink imports

Public demand is driving the rising availability of imported food and beverage items in China

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 February, 2015, 9:29am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 February, 2015, 11:08am

As China transitions from an export to domestic consumption-based economy, many imported goods have gone from being rare and expensive to becoming readily available. Once the preserve of cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, it is now common to find imported food shops, foreign-food sections in supermarkets, and authentic international restaurants in third and fourth-tier cities. French milk, Swiss chocolate, New Zealand cheese and German beer can now be obtained easily. This availability of foreign products has been a boon for the Chinese consumer, and foreign-themed food and beverage operations.

“There were two problems about trying to do something authentic,” says the owner of a French-style bakery in Xiamen, who declined to be named. “One was you couldn't get the ingredients you needed through customs, and [the other was] freshness, so you had to use local ingredients and you couldn't reproduce the cuisine. Now you can do authentic stuff because the importers are bringing in really good ingredients. So it is easier for foreigners to do foreign-based and foreign-style products.”

John Cox, the owner of the Rooster Bar in Shanghai, says: “It's nice for us because we have more selection. They are trying to bring in [more new products] to compete with other more readily available products. From a purveyor's standpoint, it's great to be able to offer our patrons microbrews from the United States or microbrews out of Australia, things you wouldn't have gotten five or six years ago.”

The diversity of imported goods and ingredients that the food and beverage industry can now access has pushed the boundaries of what they can offer. It's a scenario where a more worldly, Chinese consumer demands new foreign products which leads to an increase in their supply, allowing foreign-themed food and beverage providers to offer more authentic products.

“People see the opportunity, they see the demand, so they are trying to satisfy the supply,” Cox adds.

“The high and middle class are able to spend money for new foreign luxury goods and are curious to try new things from abroad. It got also pushed by active retailers who promote new products with amazing passion and speed,” says Oliver Schirmer, the general manager of ACA Import and Export.

Greater diversity of foreign products in China can’t be explained by trade liberalisation efforts by the central government. “The import beer faction has increased a lot, but the government has not made it easier. Not at all,” says a Shanghai-based beer importer surnamed Kou.

Kou attributes the rise in imported consumer goods in China purely to consumer demand. The diversity and sophistication of the products is a direct result of how well they perform in China. This has prompted importers to test out a greater variety of foreign products, which has resulted in a broader spectrum of brands from all over the world appearing on shelves and tables throughout China.

Another factor is also at work. The big importers have advantages when dealing with major foreign brands, so for smaller-scale importers to get in on the market they need to focus on speciality items for niche or budding consumer bases that are too small to attract the big importers. This means more choice for consumers.

“The selection is improving, and the people who are driving that – whether it's microbrewed beer or a smaller distillery out of the US, or someplace else – are guys coming from a small business perspective,” Cox says.

The demand for higher end, foreign products, combined with the new availability of imported ingredients, has created a climate where foreign-themed food and beverage operators in China can offer authentic products for the first time. This has led to many foreigners finding fertile ground in China for the food, desserts and drinks from their home countries. Germans are now selling doner kebabs and sausages, French expats have found success with French-style bakeries and creperies, Italians are opening pasta restaurants, Americans are starting microbreweries, while the Irish and British are opening their particular flavour of pubs. It's a climate where the question seems to be, “what do we like in our home countries and how can we do it here in China?”