Economic Slowdown Fails to Dim Consumer Optimism in Emerging Markets

Consumers in some of the world’s biggest emerging markets remain remarkably bullish despite slowing economic growth and market volatility—in stark contrast to continued gloom among consumers in many developed economies, according to a new report released by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).


The report, titled "Keeping an Eye on the Prize: Why Emerging-Market Consumers Remain Bullish," found that recent economic challenges are prompting many consumers in Brazil, China, and India to trim their spending plans in the near term.


Nevertheless, consumer spending in these rapidly developing economies (RDEs) is still growing faster than in developed economies. And more consumers in RDEs are trading up to higher-priced products, especially those with established brand names and in categories such as fresh foods and home appliances.


When it comes to the longer term, consumers in RDEs feel far more financially secure and confident about the future than people in richer—but less dynamic—developed economies.


“Even though we expect some bumps in emerging markets for at least the next year, the overall picture remains buoyant for the longer term,” says Jeff Walters, a BCG partner and a coauthor of the report. “RDEs will continue to offer some of the world’s greatest growth opportunities for companies selling consumer goods and services across a broad range of categories.”


The report is based on BCG’s 2013 Global Consumer Sentiment Survey, which first identified the “trading up” trend more than ten years ago. The new report focuses on responses from nearly 7,000 consumers in Brazil, China, and India.


The findings are compared with survey responses from consumers in eight African nations as well as nine developed economies. Findings on consumers in developed economies were explored in greater detail in a previous BCG report.


The contrast between the short-term caution and the longer-term confidence of consumers in RDEs is more pronounced in this report than in previous BCG surveys.


While overall consumer sentiment remains stronger in RDEs than in developed economies, in 2012 a greater percentage of respondents in RDEs said that they plan to cut back on spending over the subsequent 12 months. But this sentiment varied: while 49 percent of respondents in India and 67 percent of those in Brazil reported plans to tighten their belts, only 33 percent of consumers in China said that they intend to cut back.


When asked about the future, however, an average of 72 percent of respondents in Brazil, China, and India said that they are optimistic about the future—compared with only 48 percent of consumers surveyed in developed economies.


An average of 55 percent of consumers in the three RDEs, but only 35 percent of those in developed economies, reported that they feel “financially secure.” Nearly twice as many consumers in RDEs as in developed markets said that “every year, there are more I things I want to buy.”


“Consumers in emerging markets are accustomed to volatility,” explains Abheek Singhi, a BCG partner who heads the firm’s Consumer and Retail practice in Asia-Pacific. “So as rising incomes push millions more households into the middle and affluent classes, companies should expect growing demand for everything from cars and appliances to financial services.”


The report also found that the power of brands remains strong in emerging markets. For example, 70% of consumers in China and 67% of those in India cited “brand name and reputation” as a key reason for trading up.


Even though this year’s survey found that more consumers in RDEs are tightening their belts and plan to trade down to lower-priced products in many categories—which should not be surprising given the economic slowdowns in Brazil, China, and India—the desire to spend has not significantly diminished.


Fifty-three percent of respondents in China and 62 percent of those in Brazil—around the same as in 2012—agreed that “it seems like every year, there are more things I want to buy.” In India, agreement leaped by nine percentage points, to 66 percent.


“The combination of consumers’ short-term caution and long-term confidence is something that companies must keep in mind as they calibrate their brand strategies, investments, and expectations in RDEs,” says Olavo Cunha, a partner who leads BCG’s Consumer Goods practice in Brazil. “While they should of course plan for fluctuations in demand, companies should continue to invest aggressively in their brands and organizations on the ground in order to win in the long term.”


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