As I sit down to pen this piece, I can’t help but reminisce about the bustling markets of Shanghai, where the aroma of fresh dumplings and the chatter of vendors selling the latest tech gadgets fill the air.

In the past few years, we’ve witnessed a “consumption upgrade”—a movement towards luxury and premium goods. But now, as the world grapples with the aftermath of a global pandemic and economic uncertainties loom, a new narrative is emerging: the “consumption downgrade.” It’s a story of value-seeking, where consumers are turning to products that offer the same quality at a fraction of the price. And at the heart of this trend lies the burgeoning market for expiry food—a segment that has gone from being an afterthought to a mainstream phenomenon.

In this article, we’ll delve into the world of China’s expiry food market, exploring its rise, the strategies that have fueled its growth, and the implications it holds for both consumers and the broader economy. It’s a journey that takes us from the high-end boutiques to the aisles of discount stores, a tale that is as much about survival as it is about the evolving face of consumption in China.

The Dawn of China’s Near-Expiry Food Market

In the vibrant and ever-changing retail landscape of China, a niche market has blossomed, capturing the imagination of both thrifty shoppers and environmental advocates alike: the market for near-expiry food. These products, often referred to as “expiry food” in China, are those that are nearing their shelf life but have not yet surpassed it. They are typically characterized by their proximity to the expiration date, which can range from a few days to just under a month, depending on the specific food item and local regulations.

The prevalence of near-expiry food in China is not only a testament to the country’s robust food production and distribution system but also a reflection of its growing consumer base that is becoming increasingly aware of the environmental and economic implications of food waste. As China’s middle class expands and the demand for convenience and value grows, so too does the market for products that are just about to reach their expiration dates.

The journey of the near-expiry food market in China has been one of adaptation and innovation. It began with small-scale initiatives, where retailers would offer discounts on products nearing their expiration dates to clear out inventory and minimize waste. Over time, this practice evolved into a more formalized market, with dedicated stores and online platforms catering specifically to consumers looking for these discounted items. The market has since expanded, with more players entering the fray and a growing acceptance among consumers.

Today, the near-expiry food market in China is a thriving sector, with a projected market size of nearly 13 billion yuan (approximately 1.9 billion USD) by 2028, according to a report by the China Chain Store and Franchise Association. This growth is fueled by a combination of factors, including the country’s stringent food safety regulations, the rise of e-commerce platforms that facilitate the sale of such products, and a societal shift towards sustainability and resource conservation.

The market’s development has not been without challenges, however. Ensuring the safety and quality of near-expiry food remains a critical concern for both regulators and consumers. Additionally, the lack of a unified national standard for defining “near-expiry” has led to variations in how different regions and businesses handle these products. Despite these hurdles, the near-expiry food market continues to gain momentum, offering a unique opportunity for businesses to reduce waste and for consumers to enjoy savings while contributing to a more sustainable food system.

As the market matures, it is expected to become more regulated and sophisticated, with a greater emphasis on consumer education and transparency. The future of China’s near-expiry food market is poised to be a dynamic interplay between consumer behavior, industry innovation, and regulatory oversight, all working together to redefine the lifecycle of food products and the role of consumers in this process.

Handling, Sales, and Consumer Attitudes Towards Expiry Food in China

In China, the management of expiry food has evolved from a simple disposal method to a more nuanced approach that includes a variety of strategies aimed at reducing waste and maximizing the utility of these products. The common practices for handling expiry food range from outright destruction to repurposing them into animal feed or fertilizers, which not only minimizes waste but also contributes to the circular economy.

The sales strategies for expiry food are equally diverse, with a significant emphasis on price reduction to attract cost-conscious consumers. Retailers often offer substantial discounts, sometimes as much as 50% off, to encourage quick sales before the products reach their expiration dates. Additionally, the concept of “food banks” has been gaining traction, where businesses donate near-expiry food to charitable organizations that distribute it to those in need. This not only helps to alleviate food insecurity but also aligns with the broader societal push towards sustainability.

Consumer attitudes towards expiry food are a mix of curiosity, pragmatism, and caution. While some consumers are eager to take advantage of the price savings, others remain skeptical about the safety and quality of such products. This skepticism is rooted in a lack of clear understanding of what constitutes “near-expiry” and the potential risks associated with consuming food just before its expiration date.

To navigate the expiry food market safely, consumers are advised to pay close attention to the expiration dates and the storage conditions required for the products. It is crucial to avoid purchasing items that are not stored according to their recommended conditions, as this could compromise their safety and quality. Additionally, consumers should be mindful of the quantity they purchase, ensuring that they can consume the products within the remaining shelf life to avoid waste.

Despite the growing acceptance of expiry food, the market faces several challenges. One of the primary concerns is food safety, as some products may deteriorate faster than their labels suggest, particularly if they have been exposed to improper storage conditions. Moreover, the lack of a unified standard for defining “near-expiry” can lead to confusion among consumers and inconsistency in the industry.

On the flip side, the expiry food market presents numerous opportunities. It has the potential to save significant social resources by reducing food waste, which aligns with China’s broader environmental goals. Furthermore, it can help businesses lower their inventory costs by quickly liquidating products that are nearing their expiration dates. The market also offers a platform for innovative business models, such as subscription services that deliver expiry food at discounted prices, tapping into the growing demand for affordable and sustainable consumption options.

The global pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn have had a profound impact on consumer behavior, leading to a shift in spending patterns. In China, this phenomenon has been dubbed as “consumption downgrade,” a stark contrast to the “consumption upgrade” that was observed in the country just a few years ago. The pandemic has forced many to reevaluate their spending habits, leading to a renewed interest in value-for-money products, including those nearing their expiration dates.

Investors and social media platforms in China have been buzzing with discussions about this trend. The economic pressures have prompted consumers to seek out more affordable options, and expiry food has emerged as a viable alternative. This shift is not only a reflection of the current economic climate but also an indication of the adaptability of the Chinese consumer market.

The consumption downgrade has been particularly evident in the food sector, where the demand for expiry food has surged. Retailers and e-commerce platforms have capitalized on this trend by offering a wider range of products at discounted prices, catering to the growing number of consumers looking to stretch their budgets.

This trend has also led to a rise in awareness about food waste and sustainability. As consumers become more conscious of the environmental impact of their choices, the consumption of expiry food is seen as a way to reduce waste and contribute to a more sustainable food system.

In conclusion, the pandemic and economic challenges have accelerated the growth of the expiry food market in China. This trend, while driven by necessity, has also highlighted the potential for a more sustainable and resource-efficient consumption model. As the market continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see how this consumption downgrade shapes the future of retail and consumer behavior in China.

6 Chinese supermarket brands worth paying attention to for last-minute goods

As the market grows, some Chinese brands stand out. Here are six companies that are widely distributed in China and have attracted the attention of the Chinese investment industry:

1. HotMaxx

HotMaxx (好特卖) is a discount retail chain that specializes in offering a wide range of products at significantly reduced prices. Established in 2014, HotMaxx has been rapidly expanding in major Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. Known for its “甩甩甩” (discount, discount, discount) tagline, the brand has gained popularity for its “low to one discount” pricing strategy, which includes a mix of end-of-life products and regular items at discounted prices. HotMaxx has been able to open numerous stores in a short period, with over 100 stores in Shanghai and nearly 70 in Beijing within just 10 months. The brand’s unique “partner” business model allows individuals to become store “partners” by paying a training fee and a deposit, which has contributed to its rapid growth.

2. HitGoo

HitGoo (嗨特购) is a discount supermarket that has been expanding aggressively in China, particularly in Beijing, where it has opened 23 stores, and in Shanghai with nearly 10 outlets. The brand focuses on offering a variety of products, including snacks, cosmetics, and household items, at prices that are significantly lower than their original retail value. HitGoo’s business model is centered around providing a shopping experience that combines the thrill of finding bargains with the convenience of a modern retail store. The brand’s strategy includes a mix of franchise and partnership models, which has helped it to quickly establish a presence in the market.

3. Small Elephant Life (小象生活)

Small Elephant Life (小象生活) is a discount retail brand that offers a range of products at affordable prices. While specific details about its founding year and founder are not readily available, the brand is known for its unique supply chain that allows it to offer products at lower costs. Small Elephant Life aims to provide consumers with a shopping experience that combines the excitement of finding deals with the convenience of a modern retail environment.

4. Love Discount (爱折扣)

Love Discount (爱折扣) is a retail brand that focuses on providing discounts on a variety of products. The brand’s details, including its founding year and founder, are not widely available. However, Love Discount is known for its commitment to offering consumers the opportunity to save money by purchasing items at discounted prices. The brand’s business model likely revolves around sourcing products at lower costs and passing those savings on to customers.

5. Good Food Period (好食期)

Good Food Period (好食期) is a brand that specializes in selling products nearing their expiration dates, offering discounts to consumers. Established nearly a decade ago, Good Food Period has been able to secure investments from Alibaba, indicating its potential for growth. The brand’s focus on end-of-life products has allowed it to maintain a competitive edge in the market, despite the challenges of managing a perishable inventory.

6. Shake Sale (甩甩卖)

Shake Sale (甩甩卖) is a retail concept that emphasizes the sale of products at heavily discounted prices. The brand’s specific founding details and founder are not widely known, but it is clear that Shake Sale operates on a model that capitalizes on the consumer’s desire for bargains. The brand likely sources products from various suppliers, including those with excess inventory or products nearing their expiration dates, to offer customers the opportunity to purchase items at significant discounts.

As I reflect on the journey of the expiry food market in China, I am reminded of the resilience and adaptability of its people. In a world that is increasingly grappling with the challenges of sustainability and economic uncertainty, the rise of the expiry food market is not just a trend but a testament to the collective wisdom of a nation that knows how to make the most of what it has.

For me, this market’s growth is a personal reminder of the importance of being mindful of our consumption habits. It’s about finding balance in a world of abundance and scarcity, and it’s about making choices that not only benefit our wallets but also contribute to a more sustainable future.

As I look forward, I am optimistic that the expiry food market will continue to evolve, becoming more sophisticated and accessible. It will be a space where consumers can confidently navigate the fine line between value and waste, where businesses can innovate, and where society as a whole can benefit from a more thoughtful approach to consumption.

In the end, the expiry food market is more than just a reflection of economic shifts; it’s a symbol of a society that is learning to embrace change, to value resources, and to find joy in the simple act of making the most of what we have. It’s a story that, like the best Chinese tea, grows richer with each sip, and one that I am proud to share with my readers.