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Consumers in the Asia-Pacific region love their food and shopping, and what better way to indulge than to tie it in with a festival? Of the countless festivals and events celebrated in the region, Christmas is one of the most elaborate. Who needs snow and turkey? Consumers in the region certainly know how to do it in their own way and still have a blast!

Commercial opportunities

  • The media is heavily responsible for how Asia-Pacific consumers perceive Christmas – usually portrayed as a season of magical moments and miracles. Do not be afraid to go all out on decorations even if it means making your brand or shop look like it came right out of a fairytale. Consumers will be drawn to the feel of it and will revel in the ambiance, which in turn may encourage spending and enhance your reputation;
  • Christmas isn’t the ‘in’ season of consumer spending – there are many holidays celebrated in the Asia-Pacific region, such as Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day, Ramadan and Diwali, all involving heavy consumption.

Background

For what is perceived as a Christian holiday, Christmas surprisingly gets a lot of attention in a continent dominated by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. For some countries, it is an after-effect of centuries of Western colonialism and Christian missionary work. For others, the commercial aspects of gift giving and festivities encourage department stores and markets to dress up for the holidays. Many younger consumers see it as a romantic season – a time for couples to share intimate moments together.

In Japan, despite the fact that December the 25th is not a national holiday, Christmas is nonetheless celebrated with people decorating their homes with party lights and Christmas trees and shops decked in red and green for a Christmas “flavour”. In Hong Kong, Christmas is a busy and lively period for consumers, as it almost coincides with Dong Zi on the 22nd of December (a day when families gather to enjoy the ‘warmth’ of reunion in the middle of winter) as well as with Ta Chiu on the 27th, a Taoist festival of peace and renewal. It is a similar story in tropical Singapore, with the island nation going all out to ‘deck the downtown’ area – not with holly branches – but with virtually hundreds of thousands of lights and reflective ornaments. Malls on the high street of Orchard Road try to outdo and outshine each other with their decors and lights. This event, known as ‘Christmas Light-up’, has almost become a tradition and festival in its own right, with millions of visitors turning up to admire the extravagant display.

In the region, Christmas is most celebrated in the Philippines. This does not come as a surprise, as the nation’s population of 92 million is predominantly Catholic. Celebrations start as early as the beginning of September, earning the country the distinction of having the world’s longest Christmas season. Streets decorated with colourful lights, trees and lanterns, as well as Christmas carols played all day long are a common scene in the Philippines in September, especially in Metro Manila.

Christmas with a local flavour

For single women in Japan, it is really crucial to have someone to spend Christmas Eve with as the day has also been portrayed by the media as being a time for romantic miracles. It is seen as a time to be spent with one’s partner in a romantic setting. As such, high-end restaurants and hotels are often booked up at this time. It is often also a time when girls get to reveal their affections to boys and vice versa. Because of this, extending a girl an invitation to be together on Christmas Eve has deep, romantic implications for the Japanese.

China is starting to adopt Christmas celebrations especially in major cities where Christmas festivities are becoming more popular. Christians in China celebrate by illuminating their homes with paper lanterns, not unlike those seen during the Mid-Autumn Festival, and decorating their Christmas tree, which they call “Tree of Light”. They decorate the trees with paper chains, paper flowers, and paper lanterns. Many of the large department stores are adorned with festive decorations while Christmas carols sung in Mandarin can be heard over the noise of the crowds. A Chinese “Father Christmas” helps to make the scene complete drawing in families with children.

Christmas has been celebrated in Hong Kong for many years and the annual Hong Kong Jiandong Christmas Light Festival on December the 19th marks the beginning of the Christmas festivities. Attending shows and celebrations put on by local celebrities has become a tradition for many during this period.

In the Philippines, the charitable arm of the Archdiocese of Manila, Caritas Manila, is trying to get a piece of the city’s Christmas shopping action. Pitching for its charity store, it is urging the public to ditch swanky malls and do their shopping for Christmas gifts in its three Segunda Mana stores instead. These sell inexpensive items, which include new and second-hand clothes, shoes, bags, furniture and books. Shoppers can also buy canned food, such as sardines, cheaper than in most grocery stores, as these outlets buy them directly from manufacturers. Segunda Mana stores were opened earlier this year as part of Caritas Manila’s efforts to raise funds for poverty alleviation through donations in kind from patrons.

Seasonal travel

With most countries in the region recognising Christmas and New Year’s Day as public holidays, many consumers make full use of this period to take their vacations. Moreover, in countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Japan where many workers get their annual performance bonus, people usually use their windfall to pay off credit card debts or simply pile on the receipts by travelling. Singaporean Cynthia Lim, who has been itching to go Japan for years now, gleefully said: “I’m finally going this Christmas! Our company did well this year so I’m expecting a bonus sum of around S$4,000! I’m going to buy so many presents for myself this Christmas!” To stimulate the travelling season even further, budget airlines in the region such as Tiger Airways, Virgin Blue and Jetstar are announcing heavy discounting in an effort to buoy demand for air travel in the inevitable lull after the school holidays and before the Christmas break. In Australia, Peter Watt of Melbourne is making use of the surging Australian dollar to pay for a trip to Thailand at the end of the year for orthodontic surgery. The trip, including 12 nights in a four-star resort, has cost US$4500, compared with the US$18,000 he would have paid for the same surgery in Australia.

A very different Christmas for two neighbours

Christmas in Australia is celebrated during the summer months, and with the country being multicultural, the traditions are often mingled and derived from a mixture of other countries. The traditional Christmas Dinner is usually in the form of an afternoon barbecue out in the backyard on the 25th or a picnic at the beach. This year, with strong jobs growth combined with a strong Australian dollar, consumers are expected to spend big and celebrate Christmas with much cheer. Director of market forecaster Access Economics, said: “Last year was certainly a pretty flat year for Christmas, but now you have good jobs growth with interest rates on hold. Consumer confidence is certainly rising and spending in major categories including clothing, household goods and restaurants and takeaway food will remain strong.” With the Australian dollar soaring to a post global financial crisis high, consumers are also expected to do most of their Christmas shopping online this Christmas. Nearly one-quarter of all online sales in Australia go overseas, technology research group Forrester says.

Across the Tasman Sea in the neighbouring country of New Zealand, however, it is a very different scenario. The average New Zealander is spending NZ$45 (US$32.60) less a week than they were before the recession in a bid to wipe out debt and inject equity back into their homes – a move which is hurting retailers, according to economic analyst NZIER. The firm’s principal economist Shamubeel Eaqub, said “We are not spending nor consuming a lot. We have got all the shops geared up for a much larger wallet than what they are getting. Retailers should be braced for a disappointing pre-GST [goods and services tax] hike spend-up and Christmas sales as consumers ‘make do’.” In August, daily newspaper The Herald reported that New Zealand’s premier shopping district was punctured by empty stores, shops for lease and closing down sales.

Unemployment rate in Australia and New Zealand: 2006 – 2010

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 19 09.26

Source: Euromonitor International from International Labour Organisation

Note: Data for 2010 is forecast

Outlook

Consumers in the region are likely to spend more this Christmas than the last as most economies are seeing positive growth with the job market recovering. Countries such as Singapore and South Korea which were badly hit by the global financial crisis are one of the first to emerge from it with soaring growth. “When you look at the growth outlook, Asia is the most attractive compared with the other regions,” said Minori Ucida, a senior analyst at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd. “That encourages fund inflows into the region, helping to boost currencies and spending.”

Real GDP growth in Singapore and South Korea: 2006 – 2010

ScreenHunter_02 Dec. 19 09.27
Source: Euromonitor International from International Monetary Fund (IMF)/International Financial Statistics and World Economic Outlook/national statistics

Note: Data for 2010 is forecast

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