Do malls feel China’s ‘resilient’ retail?

August 22, 2016 / By  

As China’s economic growth has slowed, the country’s consumer sector has emerged as a perennial bright spot. Quarter after quarter, analysts and media compare sluggish GDP figures to comparatively resilient retail sales. Indeed, retail sales growth in China has consistently outpaced GDP for the past several years.

Investors eyeing China’s retail sector might take heart at such news. Rosy headline statistics, however, increasingly have diverged from on-the-ground experience for many retailers and mall operators, some of whom report weak or even declining same-store sales growth.

How can investors account for the gap between official retail sector statistics and property performance? JLL’s analysis has shed light on a range of factors:

China uses a very broad definition of ‘retail’. China’s strong retail figures come from an indicator called “Retail sales of consumer goods,” which the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) explicitly defines as not just including goods sold to households for private consumption, but also wholesale sales and government procurement. This wide reach dilutes the indicator’s precision as a measure of demand by every day shoppers.

Malls account for a tiny share of overall retail. My colleague Steven McCord has extrapolated from JLL’s database of malls in major cities to estimate that the country’s prime-quality mall sector supplies only about one-twentieth of overall retail sales. It’s entirely possible that strong headline figures reflect strength in parts of the remaining 95%, with slow growth in the mall sector making only limited impact.


Online is soaking up much of the growth. This point is beyond dispute, borne out by reams of reports showing that e-commerce’s rapid growth has come at the expense of traditional retail. Yet with the online sector accounting for only 13% of China’s retail, this explanation alone is insufficient to explain fully the disparity in headline statistics.

Strength in non-mall product types is propping up retail figures. The overall retail figures get all the headlines, but NBS’s regular detailed data releases (available in English) are more useful, providing category breakdowns for retail enterprises whose revenues exceed a certain threshold. Over the first half of 2016, appliances, clothing, and jewelry – all common goods in malls – saw sales slow sharply compared to 2015. Only three product types saw sales accelerate, and two of them were automobiles and petroleum products – these two huge categories together account for nearly a fifth of all retail sales, but malls haven’t benefited since consumers don’t buy cars or petrol in them. The third product category to improve was food, which partly reflects heightened inflation, but may also help explain why mall operators have been rushing to boost F&B offerings in their tenant mixes.

Looking ahead, serious students of China’s retail property sector would be well-served by taking time to pore through NBS’ detailed data breakdowns, or directly reviewing annual reports of key retailers and operators. It’s more work, but increasingly necessary in a time when China’s most-cited retail indicator is losing relevance as a measure of health for shopping malls.

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