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Retail, service providers look to promising market

The growing number of Chinese choosing to remain single may worry many of their parents, but the phenomenon has created ample opportunities for retail and service providers.

Many of them now target singles - who often have sizable disposable incomes as a result of fewer family commitments - with products that suit their lifestyles.

Chen Xi, 29, a fashion industry consultant in Shanghai, said she has bought many products in recent years that have been customized for singles, including a rice cooker, an oven, a refrigerator and a washing machine.

"These products come in smaller sizes than usual, which are perfect for people who live alone like me. I"m glad there seem to be more products on the market that can improve quality of life and make things more convenient for single people," she said.

There were 215 million single people in China at the end of 2017, accounting for about 16 percent of the population, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Marriage registrations have fallen every year since 2014, while the divorce rate has risen for 16 consecutive years, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Dining, traveling and pursuing activities individually have also become increasingly popular with singles in China.

Tang Chuan, a researcher with Sinolink Securities, said that without family burdens, singles seem to be less inclined to save money, and their willingness to spend offers great potential for boosting the economy.

Sinolink Securities conducted research on singles born from 1985 to 1995 and found that about 40 percent of those in first- and second-tier cities live from paycheck to paycheck, while in lower-tier cities, the proportion is as high as 76 percent.

"This generation has grown up in an era when China has made tremendous economic achievements, and they have enjoyed affluent material conditions since childhood. So they set higher standards for life and ask for better quality and unique experiences," Tang said.

"Compared with the older generation, they are more willing to pay for convenience, entertainment, mental stimulation, companionship and education that will benefit their future careers."

George Ren, a senior partner with global consultancy Roland Berger, said many companies have started to respond to this demographic shift in recent years, as they have seen great potential in the singles" economy.

"They have made products of smaller size, in smaller packages or with more divided functions. They have also developed unique and personalized services to cater to the diversified demands from single people," he said.

Hotpot chain Haidilao has introduced large, soft toys to accompany solo diners at its more than 200 outlets nationwide.

Figures from major e-commerce platform Tmall show that last year, the sales of mini-microwave ovens and mini-washing machines rose by 970 percent and 630 percent, respectively, year-on-year, while purchases of one-person hotpots rose by 208 percent. There has also been rapid sales growth for many other daily-use commodities.

Food and beverage is a key sector that has benefited from the singles economy, according to the Sinolink Securities report, which said more than half of singles spend 10 to 30 percent of their income on food and drink.

But some 23 percent of them never cook, and some 46 percent said they seldom do so, which has helped spur rapid growth in the food delivery industry.

Tang said, "Chinese food is quite complicated to make, so single people think it is a waste of time compared with ordering takeout," adding that on major food delivery platform Meituan-Dianping, about 65 percent of the orders are made by singles ages 20 to 30.

Others choose to dine out. A recent report by global market research company Kantar Worldpanel found that 46 percent of interviewees said they had eaten alone in the past 24 hours, up by 9 percent from 2017. Some 16 percent of respondents said they preferred to eat out alone.

Liu Chang, 24, a postgraduate at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said she likes to experience celebrity restaurants recommended by food review platforms. She has visited them alone many times.

"Finding friends you like to dine with can be difficult sometimes. In view of this, I would rather eat alone, which can also be enjoyable and relaxing, as I can do whatever I like," she said.

Chen Jingxue, a researcher with Kantar Worldpanel, said many Chinese leave their hometowns to make a living in big cities, where they live alone. This makes it inevitable that they will do things on their own at times.

"Due to life"s stresses, sometimes they will actively look for the chance to escape from social interaction to enjoy solitude. As a result, dining, traveling and singing karaoke or watching movies alone has become more common," she said.

Chen added that the perception of single people has witnessed profound changes, as there is no longer any stigma attached to them and many prefer to remain alone.

"Whether in TV shows or movies, there are increasing scenarios that tell people they should remain independent, and it is possible to live a nice life without getting married, especially for women," she said.

Luan Shengjun, founder of the restaurant chain Kuma Canteen, which specializes in Japanese food, said that in each of its outlets about 10 seats are specially designed for solo diners, where they can watch chefs making sushi and sashimi at close hand. The restaurants also offer small-sized portions of classic dishes so that solo diners can taste a variety of food.

"If solo customers feel like talking, we encourage our chefs to respond enthusiastically. For example, they introduce customers to the process of making food and sometimes even have a drink with them," he said.

Chinese singles, many of whom are well-educated and financially independent, also like traveling alone.

Figures from travel service provider Tuniu.com show that solo travel has become increasingly popular with those born in the 1990s. Last year, the number of people born in that decade who traveled alone rose by 10 percent compared with 2017.

Song Yu, 34, a freelance writer in Beijing, said he traveled alone for the first time when he turned 30, and has done so ever since.

"I was about to be 30 and wanted to celebrate this special birthday in Europe, but I couldn"t find any companion to go with me," he said. "So, I visited Europe on my own and found doing so could be pleasant, as it enabled me to change my route and meet interesting travelers. I even met a backpacker who guided me to the Alps."

Xu Xiaolei, a spokesman for China Youth Travel Service, said the number of people traveling alone has grown steadily in recent years. Last year, 10 percent of the company"s revenue came from single travelers, mostly ages 18 to 30.

"For the younger generation, experiencing unique cultures and relaxing their minds and bodies are the main reasons for traveling, rather than connecting with others or sightseeing. So they won"t stop travelling because they lack a companion," Xu said.

In tour groups, guides will usually pay more attention to solo travelers, making them feel less lonely or embarrassed, he said.

Mini-karaoke booths have also emerged in shopping centers, movie theaters and even subway stations nationwide. The soundproofed booths, which occupy about 2 square meters, are usually equipped with two chairs and headsets and are similar to those in traditional karaoke bars, but offer a smaller and more intimate environment. Apart from singing karaoke, customers can record their performances and share them with friends online.

Li Jianbin, CEO of mini-karaoke booths brand Mida Minik, said it has allocated more than 40,000 booths nationwide, and they are mainly used by singles and unmarried young couples. From 2014 to 2017, its annual revenue rose by about 300 percent.

"The emergence of the mini-karaoke booths industry is due to the younger generation"s demand for convenient entertainment. In these booths, they can enjoy singing alone with high-quality musical equipment without traveling a long way or being bothered by others," he said.

Ren, at Roland Berger, said that compared with developed economies such as Japan and the United States, China has a lower proportion of singles.

"The number of singles will definitely grow, driven by a trend toward later marriage, and economic development. It is important for companies to think about the kind of opportunities the singles economy can offer."

Ren said he expects to see the emergence of more products and services targeting singles, a trend already evidenced in nearby Japan and the Republic of Korea.

He said that in many sectors unexplored potential could be represented by singles, including real estate, insurance and cosmetics. Raising pets, which can provide companionship and comfort, might be especially popular with this group.

Wang Ziwei contributed to this story.

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