Consumer drinking habits are changing in China. The traditional drinking culture has always been concentrated in the north of the country, owing to its colder climates, and drinking was usually done by men. But now alcohol consumption has become accepted amongst females as they increasingly enter the workforce and gain a modicum of social and financial independence. Drinking alcohol has moved into the mainstream culture, beyond just an activity at family functions and dinners. On the other hand, drinking during the day and, especially drinking during official working hours, is still mostly unheard of. But the custom of after-work drinks with colleagues is fast becoming de rigueur amongst Chinese urbanites, especially among young professional single men and, increasingly, women.
Generally, Chinese consumers seek to emulate the drinking habits of their Western counterparts. Forecasters predict that Chinese consumers will continue to drive growth in demand in all drinks categories over the next decade, in large part at the expense of baijiu. While most Chinese consumers still find it hard to differentiate between lager and any other kind of beer and they are just now getting to grips with the various types of grapes associated with different wine varieties, it is premiumisation in the spirits segment, with the rising popularity of branded Scotch, vodkas, brandies and bourbons, that is the most significant emerging consumer trend in the sector. In many cases, the right labels are just as important on consumers’ bottles of vodka in China as they are on their handbags or polo shirts.
As brands continue to appeal to Chinese consumers, specialist stores have become increasingly popular as famous international brands make their way through these retail venues into the Chinese marketplace. Drinking wine, in particular, has become a sign of being cultured and a sign of wealth amongst Chinese and a genuine interest in wine has flourished amongst those wealthy enough to afford it. Wine-tasting clubs have become popular among the affluent in China’s first- and second-tier cities, and specialist wine stores have sprouted up in new locations to catering to growing domestic demand. Distribution through such clubs has proved popular due to the relative gap in knowledge regarding wine. Indeed, drinking ‘shots’ of wine and even mixing Bordeaux with Coke is not unheard of among many consumers. In many instances, it appears that Chinese consumers prefer the image associated with drinking wine to the taste.