Dreaming of a white Christmas: How consumers in the Asia-Pacific region celebrate in style

Although just a few countries in the region actually get to have a white Christmas, it does not deter consumers from celebrating, especially in a commercial way. From fancy Christmas cakes in Japan to extravagant lighting displays in Singapore, to amusingly funny “Marry Christmas!” banners in China to simply ‘throwing a shrimp on the Barbie’ Down Under, Christmas certainly has a prominent position in the hearts of Asia-Pacific consumers.

With the global financial crisis seemingly receding and consumers’ confidence returning slowly but surely, what tune would Asia-Pacific consumers be carolling to this Christmas? Surely it’s got to be a jollier one than in 2008?

Key trends

  • Partying like it’s 2007;
  • Big in Japan;
  • Let’s play under the bright, glittering lights;
  • Bah! Humbug!

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 shop look like it came right out of a fairytale. Consumers will be drawn to the feel of it and will revel in the ambience, which in turn may encourage spending and enhance your reputation;
  • Do not just focus and budget on Christmas as 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, that all involve 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 25th is not a national holiday, Christmas is nonetheless celebrated with people decorating their houses with party lights and Christmas trees and shops decked in red and green rich in a Christmas “flavour”. In Hong Kong, Christmas is a busy and lively period for consumers, as it almost coincides with Dong Zi on 22nd December (a day for families to 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 boughs of holly – 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.

Over in The Philippines, where consumers are predominantly Catholic, Christmas is the biggest festival of the year. Department stores decorate their interiors and play Christmas jingles as early as September. Entire buildings are dressed in lights, while lantern makers ply their works on the city streets.

Partying like it’s 2007

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 barbeque out in the backyard on the 25th or a picnic at the beach.

Consumers drink champagne instead of eggnog (due to the heat), and eat pavlova instead of plum pudding (due to the strong influence of the large population of Greek migrants). This year, consumers are expected to loosen their purse strings again feeling more relaxed about the economy and not even letting interest rate rises ruin their shopping plans.

The higher Australian dollar, up 50% on a year ago, is also likely to encourage a general feeling that the worst is over and better times lie ahead. “Last year was terrible, with all the speculations of my husband’s pay cut and even the threat of job loss. Our shares are doing so much better now and he may even get a bonus at the end of the year. I’m definitely shopping more generously this Christmas,” said Gina Foran, a stay-at-home housewife in Sydney.

Retailers are also more upbeat about the situation, expecting better sales this year as shoppers celebrate the end of the recession-that-wasn’t. CEO of electronic departmental store JB Hi-Fi, Richard Uechtritz, expects consumers to put the gloom of the past year behind them this Christmas. “Everything is indicating a lot more consumer confidence returning in big licks, and that is going to drive spending a little more,” he said, adding that households had focused on saving and repaying debt over the past 12 to 18 months and were in a better financial position now to loosen the purse strings.

Meanwhile in Singapore, cash tills along Orchard Road, the main shopping stretch in Singapore, will be ringing up Christmas sales sooner this year, with the annual shopping fiesta and lighting-up starting a week earlier than in previous years due to the recovery of consumer spending.

Some simply want the best of both worlds, literally. “I’m definitely heading down to Orchard Road to enjoy the lights and the atmosphere with my friends, but I may do most of my shopping online from American sites as the US dollar is so weak now,” said Cindy Seah, a local university student who cannot wait for the festivities to begin.

Real GDP growth of Singapore and Australia: 2006-2010
%

Source: Euromonitor International from International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Financial Statistics and World Economic Outlook/UN/national statisticsNote: Data for 2009 and 2010 is forecast.

Big in Japan

The Japanese love festivals – the explosion of colour and shopping opportunities as well as the excuse to go all out on decorations. Although Christmas is not an official holiday (neither is Halloween but it is one of the most majorly celebrated days for Japanese consumers), the Japanese tend to celebrate in a big way, especially in the commercial sense. On Christmas Eve, many Japanese eat a ‘Christmas Cake’, which the father of the family purchases on his way home from work.

Stores all over the country carry different versions of this Christmas cake and drop the price of it drastically on December 25th in order to sell stocks by the 26th. In recent years, due to the intense marketing of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), the Christmas Chicken Dinner has become quite popular too. Many Japanese even make reservations for their “Christmas Chicken” ahead of time. People queue at their outlets to pick up their orders.

As a result of KFC’s brilliant advertising campaign, most Japanese now believe that Westerners celebrate Christmas with a chicken dinner instead of the more common ham or turkey. “We did the chicken dinner last year and are doing it again. I love it. Did you watch the Okuribito (a Japanese film that won Best Foreign Film Award at the Oscars this year)? Even the people in there are doing it!” chirped 23-year old accountant Minako Fujiyama.

Christmas Eve 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.

Gift-exchange during the Christmas period is a common practice in Japan too. However, in contrast to the practice in Western cultures where presents are for family and friends, presents in Japan are often exchanged between co-workers, bosses and teachers to show their appreciation and respect.

Let’s play under the bright, glittering lights

In Hong Kong, decorations in the form of glittering lights and giant reindeers and Santa will adorn every district and mall, with the city’s famous skyscrapers on both sides of the harbour adding dazzling façades to the cityscape. From November through to the New Year, shops will be presenting seasonal promotions, while the Hong Kong Food & Wine Year continues its run, offering festive, seasonal menus in restaurants and hotels.

Christmas is a very family-oriented time for most consumers, with parents bringing their children to places such as Disneyland, Ocean Park, Noah’s Ark, and Madame Tussauds, which are usually more popular with tourists than locals.

Now in its 25th year, the Orchard Road Christmas Light-up remains as popular as ever, with both the locals and tourists. According to the Singapore Tourism Board, one out of every five overseas visitors to the Christmas Light-up is a repeat visitor. “I come from Chicago, it’s a fantastic opportunity to celebrate Christmas with a difference – a tropical Christmas minus all the snow and the cold.

You could buy an ice cream or a chilled fresh coconut from one of the road-side cafes, and savour it along the way. Celebrate in your tank-tops and shorts if you want. I love it!” raved Marcus Huyton, an American engineer who has been living in Singapore for 8 years.

In East Asia, South Korea in the only country that recognises Christmas as a public holiday. This may be due in part to the large population of Christians. According to the National Statistical Office of South Korea, there are 13.7 million Christians in the country at present, accounting for almost a third of the population. However, even non-Christian Koreans engage in gift-giving, card-sending, and plastic tree-decorating at this time of year.

Viewing the elaborate lights decorations in the City Hall area in downtown Seoul has become a very popular activity. “I bring my kids to see the lights every year, it has a real magical view to it. I’ll take many pictures while my wife will shop in the nearby malls with her sister. Christmas is indeed a time to be jolly,” gushed Park Soo Kwon, a father of two who did not mind his wife upping spending during the holiday season.

Real value of incoming tourist receipts in Hong Kong and South Korea: 2005-2009
US$ (million)

Source: Euromonitor International from trade sources/national statistics. Note: Currency conversion to US$ based on fixed 2008 exchange rates. Data for 2009 is forecast.

Bah! Humbug!

For every consumer who loves Christmas, there is another who thinks it is too commercialised and is nothing more than just another gimmick by retailers to make big bucks from excited shoppers. “Christmas is simply a commercial opportunity for merchants such as bakers, who sell overpriced, so-called Christmas cake, which is nothing more than fancy strawberry pound cake.

Most people don’t even know the meaning of Christmas but just shop blindly,” pointed out Konosuke Inoue, a peeved consumer in Fukuoka who would rather watch TV on Christmas Day than be caught up in the consumption frenzy. Some economic experts also think that consumers are too quick to let their hair down and spend in the wake of the global financial crisis. “There is still a substantial budget repair task ahead. Having partied during the good years, we now face the hangover,” warned Access Economics Australia director Chris Richardson, Mr. Richardson’s sentiments are definitely echoed by some.

“Why can’t the government introduce regulations banning Christmas stuff from the shops before December? They are there to tempt people to spend like there’s no tomorrow. Let’s face it, fake snow and Christmas pudding in October is totally stupid,” wrote one irate reader of MX, a free daily paper for commuters in Melbourne.

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. Singapore, being the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to go into recession during the global financial crisis but also one of the first to recover, is likely to see its consumers spend up this year-end. According to the latest numbers released by the Credit Bureau Singapore (CBS) on the 26th of October, consumer confidence continues to rally in the run-up to Christmas, with figures showing credit card spending going up while payment delinquency rates are at record lows.

“The increase in credit card spending is in line with the clear but modest recovery that is underway in the local and global economy,’ said CBS executive director William Lim. ‘It reflects improving consumer confidence that the economy and job markets are in recovery phase.” And in Australia, if a ‘Mind & Mood’ report released in late October by market researcher Ipsos MacKay is anything to go by, Australians are “over the global financial crisis” and are again ready to spend more this Christmas.