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Business Insight

Little Emperors Spend Big

Young people in China have gone on a shopping spree, unlike anything ever seen before. The occasion was "Singles' Day" on Wednesday -- the 11th day of the 11th month -- an auspicious date on the Chinese calendar.

The country's e-commerce giant Alibaba says it marked record sales of more than 14 billion dollars, up nearly 60 percent from last year.

Businesses both in and outside of China put a lot of hope in the young consumers called "little emperors" to spend more and boost their profits.

A hot item on the day's online shopping list was a package tour to Japan -- at half price. At an airport in the country's northern Hokkaido, managers at one sourvenir store say they witnessed a big jump in their online sales to China thanks to a free-delivery campaign.

Especially popular was a package of items used by young Chinese.

"We see a huge potential in the market," said shop owner Wataru Ogasawara.

Singles' Day was made popular by Alibaba six years ago. It has now become the world's biggest online shopping event. This year at midnight, there was a surge in sales. And the overseas country at the top of the list was Japan.

Many Chinese in their 20s and early 30s have been enjoying a shopping spree their entire lives. Born under the country's one-child policy, they now make up one-in-four Chinese, about 330 million people. These are the little emperors. They usually have six patrons -- their parents and both sets of grandparents, according to economists.

Japanese restaurants are increasingly packed with young Chinese. Managers say price is of no concern when they're ordering food and drink.

"I eat out almost every day," one female diner said.

Zhang Chaowei, 25, a resident of Guangdong Province, says he tried to buy basketball shoes at midnight but couldn't access the Alibaba site because too many other shoppers were trying to do the same thing.

Zhang, who lives in a company dormitory, is proud of his collection of brand-name sports shoes. "I enjoy buying things I really like," he says.

His father is a company employee, his mother a civil servant. Throughout his life, they've bought him, their only son, everything he wanted. He says their attitude hasn't changed even after he started working three years ago.

Zhang recently made his biggest ever purchase: a new car. The price tag was about 24,000 US dollars, twice his annual income.

Zhang says he could make the down payment with the help of his parents and will pay off the rest with a monthly bank loan.

As China's auto industry faces a slowdown, makers are increasingly focusing on young consumers. Zhang's car is one such example.

Wu Yue, project leader of a development team at Dongfeng Nissan P.V.C., says car designs must be unique to attract young Chinese drivers. He says the key concept is "everything is designed for you."

"Little emperors may look selfish, but they think that's normal," he says. "We have to develop cars that have distinct styles with designs that make them feel as if the cars have been especially crafted for them."

Leaders in Beijing are hoping the growth in consumer spending will help lift the country's slowing economy. Meanwhile, corporate designers are working on the next new angle to make sure the little emperors keep on spending.

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