‘You can do without a wallet in Beijing these days but not without a smartphone.’ This came from the cab driver who picked me up at Beijing International airport when I landed with my mother last fall for the first trip back to my home country (and hometown) in years. He was completely right.
Over the following weeks, I grew a renewed appreciation for my iPhone (now powered by a local SIM card), and constantly found myself pulling it out for all the things I had never used it for – to help open a bank account (you have to have a local mobile number and a phone that can at least receive authentication codes to be able to open an account in China), to make online reservations at restaurants (many of them don’t take reservations over the phone), to book an online appointment at a local salon and get a nice discount for the visit, to use an app to call cabs (Didi, the world largest ride-hailing service with nearly 400 million users across 40 cities in China), and of course, to make in-store purchases by scanning QR codes.
Having followed and reported on tech trends for years, I was prepared for the role of smartphones in China. However, being there to experience and witness the smartphone culture first-hand, I still couldn’t help but constantly marvel at how involved my fellow citizens are today with their beloved phones.
Chinese are now the most engaged mobile phone users globally: Many visitors to China would probably share my amazement at Chinese consumers’ high smartphone engagements. According to data from GfK Consumer Life, Chinese today use their mobile phones to do more than their peers in any of the other 21 countries covered in our global study. On average, 61% of online Chinese consumers age 15+ did at least seven out of fourteen consistently tracked activities on their mobile phones in the past month, from social networking to online banking. This compares with 57% in South Korea, 34% in the US, and 32% in the UK.
Older consumers drive the latest growth: It’s no longer just tech-savvy younger Chinese who are inseparable with their phones. Increasingly, it’s their grey-haired parents – and grandparents - as well.
The biggest increase in mobile phone engagement since 2014 came from older Chinese age 50+, whose growing fascination with their phones was visible when we toured around Beijing. From restaurants to buses to community parks, I was always able to spot seniors being totally immersed in the little screens in their palms. By the end of our trip, my mom’s group of 70-80 year-old friends had convinced her to install WeChat, China’s massively popular mobile social networking app with now 889 million users. And content sharing to her account has been flowing non-stop ever since.
China dwarfs the US in mobile commerce and payments: Our taxi driver wasn’t kidding when he said that you can survive in China’s large cities without a traditional wallet, as long as you’re equipped with a mobile one.
From tiny street vendors to large supermarkets, numerous retailers of all types in Beijing accept mobile payments, often through popular apps Alipay and WeChat Pay. China’s relatively low plastic card penetration also contributes to the appeal of mobile wallets as a convenient non-cash alternative.
Of course, smartphones are used not only for in-store payments, but online purchases. The latest data from GfK Consumer Life indicates that 61% of online Chinese mobile phone users used their handsets to buy something online in the past month, up 17 pts from 2014. This compares with 28% of American users, up 7 pts in the same time period. Last year, China’s biggest online shopping day Single’s Day raked in an eye-popping $17.8 billion in sales, with 82% coming from mobile transactions. To put that into perspective, last year’s record-setting Cyber Monday rang in $3.45 billion, with mobile accounting for around one-third of that revenue.
Chinese companies on the rise in mobile technologies: Chinese consumers’ high engagement with their smartphones can be attributed in part to the innovative solutions from local tech giants.
Tencent’s WeChat, launched in 2011, has built itself into a ‘super app’ that allows users to not only make video calls and group chat, but shop, make payments, book a hotel, hail a ride and play games all on one intuitive platform. Its ‘super app’ approach is often seen as inspiring even to tech giants in the West.
With a willing consumer and increasingly sophisticated local players, China is poised to continue to lead the evolution of the mobile culture. Brands trying to crack the Chinese market must recognize the essential role of mobile in the lives of these consumers. And for those curious about the future of mobile technologies, China – not the US – may be the closest to offer a glimpse.
Veronica Chen is Vice President at GfK Consumer Life. To share your thoughts, please email email@example.com or leave a comment below.
GfK PoS Measurement, 2016, Sales Units, USA and Mexico not included