The emergence of the 'he economy' broadens market scope for male consumers
The concept of "shopping" does not belong to any specific gender
By Tao Xing  ·  2021-11-29  ·   Source: NO.48 DECEMBER 2, 2021
Customers check out the men's cosmetics display at a store in Shanghai on July 1 (VCG)

When a man enters the Hanguang store in Beijing's Xidan shopping district, or many of its equivalents, he might question a man's right to fashion or beauty as he only has the sixth floor to find what he is looking for—compared to the three floors his female counterparts get to enjoy.

"Merchants should improve the supply of male products to cater to new demands," Cui Lili, Director of the Institute of E-Commerce with the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, told Beijing Review. The market for male consumers has long gone under the radar, but the growth spurt of a new male generation, born after 1990, has now propelled wholly different consumption characteristics.

Ke Jingwen, a young lawyer based in Beijing, told Beijing Review, "The concept of 'shopping' does not belong to any specific gender. Men, too, have acquired a more refined, fashionable taste both in daily life and in entertainment."

"Many of my friends will invest in their face and body alike; the same applies to me," Ke added.

According to China Comment, a semimonthly magazine affiliated with Xinhua News Agency, recent market data show that male consumers made up about 10 percent of medical beauty consumers in 2020, and this trend is snowballing. A China News Services report mentioned that the global market scale of the male personal care industry is predicted to reach $166 billion in 2022. From 2016 to 2019, the growth speed of the Chinese retail market for male cosmetics retail was 13.5 percent, much higher than the 5.8 percent global average.

Why men buy

"The 'he economy' is a symbol of social prosperity," Cui said. As living standards rise, men also seek a newfangled type of "self-fulfillment."

Harry Wang, a Chinese-English interpreter, told Beijing Review that when he was an undergraduate student in Beijing from 2010 to 2014, he certainly did care about his appearance, but would stick to the bare minimum of putting gel in his hair.

"The fact that I had no income at the time restricted my consumption options," Wang said. Now that he has landed a fulltime job in Hong Kong, he can focus more on his lifestyle.

China Comment further said the proportion of single men in society is increasing on a yearly basis, in turn giving the "he economy" a leg up. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the number of singles in China now stands at 240 million. China's seventh national census, released on May 11, showed the number of single men aged 20 to 49 in China far outweighed than that of their single female peers.

A report of the Suning Institute of Finance reads that the consumption structure of singles differs from that of the traditional family. Single people have a lower tendency to save and display stronger consumption abilities, especially the single men with more disposable time and money.

The cap on the single male's personal consumption capacity definitely bears the potential to be released, according to China Comment.

In Wang's eyes, married men or relatively older guys might care more about their looks. For example, very recently, one of his friends who happens to be a father of two, introduced him to a face-thinning beauty tool, worth around 8,000 yuan ($1,250).

"The desire to look attractive is universal," Wang added. "It is normal in both my personal and working circles, in both Hong Kong and the mainland."

Cui believes that certain social phenomena, such as work pressures and appearance anxiety, also push men to make a change through diverse spending habits.

"In the end, consumption is just consumption," Wang said. He does not want male consumption to be exploited as some businesses seek to profiteer by labeling their services as "for men only." "A 30-minute haircut at a cost of 650 yuan (about $100) in a special barber shop is not that different from the one you get at the hairdresser's around the corner," Wang added.

Single young adults attend a blind date event organized by China Railway Shanghai Group Co. Ltd. in Shanghai on October 20 (XINHUA)

A growing kingdom

According to iiMedia Research consultancy, the "he economy" can be divided into sports, personal care, medical beauty, clothing and accessories—with personal care as its most striking feature. In 2020, the market scale of male skin care products was 8 billion yuan ($1.25 billion), and this number is expected to achieve 9.9 billion yuan ($1.55 billion) by the end of 2021.

"A limited supply of male-oriented products was another reason confining my options when I was living in Beijing," Wang said, but today, change looms.

The growth of the male market also attracts more capital, according to Beijing Business Today, a local newspaper. Chinese male beauty companies have raised more than 1.8 billion yuan ($281.5 million) in investment since 2017. The incoming of capital would undoubtedly boost the development of male brand, and meanwhile, several originally womenswear brands have also started dipping their toes in the male market worldwide.

According to the 2020 third quarter financial report of Lululemon, a Canadian yoga clothing brand, its men's apparel segment had increased by 14.3 percent, amounting to $239 million. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the company announced the goal of raising its male apparel revenue to $1.4 billion by 2023. Perfect Diary, a Chinese cosmetics company, also officially released its men's line in July.

The development of e-commerce, too, has widened market perspectives. "Compared with women, male consumers usually know very little about personal care or cosmetics, and probably are too shy to discuss their questions and options with store staff directly," Cui explained. E-commerce platforms and live-streaming sessions provide them with a way of gathering more product information prior to purchasing the goods.

Meanwhile, Cui elaborated, consumption of beauty products is not all about the "he economy." "Merchants should care about the demands of male consumers, such as social interaction and hobbies, and develop products that suit these specific needs."

"I also spend money on new gaming gear," Ke said. All clothing, personal care and cosmetics aside, Wang, too, has other particular interests such as fitness and outdoor activities.

Of course, a growing kingdom also needs growing regulations. Male consumers tend to remain silent when they encounter consumer disputes, Cui added, therefore it is necessary to better protect their consumer rights. 

(Print Edition Title: Consumption Loves Man)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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