Are low spending Chinese shoppers a new normal?

By Kevin Rozario |

There are stark differences in August tax-free sales, largely because of the beneficial 'MERS effect' in Korea.

There are stark differences in August tax-free sales, largely because of the beneficial ‘MERS effect’ in Korea.

August shopping data from tax refund specialist, Global Blue, indicates a downward trend in tax-free in-store sales of -13% (year-on-year) in Asia – the worst decline since the start of the year and a big fall compared with July’s 0% change.

While transactions rose significantly in August by +25%, the decline of average spend at -30% clearly shows that individual travellers are spending less and this is probably due to a combination of factors ranging from China’s customs clampdown, a different passenger profile, and currency influences.

Global Blue says: “The rise of less affluent middle class Chinese travellers continues to bring down the average spend of tax-free shopping globally, with a sizeable impact in Asia. Across the region more ‘value seekers’ from second-tier and third-tier cities are growing their transactions, but with less affluent spending patterns.”

Duty free and travel retailers can take comfort from the rising number of travellers in Asia, which correlates with higher numbers of transactions in South Korea, Japan and Singapore. But, says Global Blue, the overall sales performance in the region is significantly limited by the headwinds of a stronger yen in Japan and Chinese spending in the region increasingly being driven by value-seeking shoppers who spend less.


The travel boost is not compensating for the spending fall in key duty free and travel retail locations such as Singapore and Japan – while Hong Kong (downtown) does not even have the benefit of rising traveller numbers.

All Global Blue’s Asia tax-free shopping destinations rely on increased arrivals and traffic, yet the common theme is lower spend potential. With -33% sales in August, Japan has been affected by the strong currency, which has negatively impacted the number of transactions.

Global Blue August Asia

Transactions are strongly up but average spending is even more strongly down.

Global Blue estimates that 23% of Japan’s negative sales performance this month is driven by the softer yen and the other 10% is due to increased numbers of less affluent Chinese shoppers arriving in Japan (+20 to +30% more in the first half of the year at Narita airport) from second-tier and third-tier cities.

South Korea’s sales performance of +44% this month (versus an impressive triple-digit growth of +215% for July) is on the back of highly beneficial comparisons to last year when the MERS virus took a big toll on traffic.

Top Chinese at Nice Airport

Chinese travel shoppers are increasingly looking for value.

Transaction numbers are significantly up across all globe shopper nationalities in Asia, except for Hong Kong (-10%), reflecting the increase in air arrivals across Japan and South Korea. Taiwanese globe shoppers (+43%) showed the highest transactions growth in the region in August, followed by Chinese (+28%), with Thais and Indonesians up too. However, the decline in average spend per transaction is a long-term trend.


Global Blue estimates that the new Chinese value seekers are having a negative impact of between -6% and -10% across Asia as their demand for regional travel increases, driven by the Chinese government’s strategy of strengthening the economy by localising discretionary spending.

Year to date tax-free sales performance across the region is flat and average sales are down -21%. A less favourable economic situation in mainland China is also not helping travel spending: for example Japan’s current picture YTD is a +26% increase in transactions and a decline of -25% in average sales.


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