Coronavirus: in China, the pandemic payoff has been good for pets, with interest in them increasing

21-Sep-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

When Celia Zhang, an employee at a Beijing internet company, left the city for her hometown in the central province of Hubei in mid-January, she did not expect to be trapped there by a pandemic — or that she would be separated from her cat, Yahaha, for three months.

While Hubei, epicentre of the first coronavirus outbreak, was under lockdown, Zhang, 27, scrambled to order cat food from e-commerce platforms, sought help from friends and kind strangers via social media and frequently checked on Yahaha, who had just finished a sterilisation operation, through a video camera in her Beijing flat.

“I couldn’t help weeping when I saw Yahaha hid herself sullenly and did not touch food for days,” Zhang said, “It came to me she was so important in my life and I decided to indulge her when I’m back.”

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At the end of January, Zhang’s roommate managed to return to Beijing from the western province of Shaanxi where lockdown measures were less stringent. As Zhang splurged online for Yahaha — whom she named after magic seeds in a Japanese video game — the roommate received the cat foods, toys and accessories, from balls to cardboard boxes to a drinking fountain.

Zhang returned in mid-April. She was excited to see Yahaha, but to her disappointment, Yahaha did not act intimately as before. Yahaha did not pay much attention when Zhang opened the door with a trembling hand. It took the cat a couple of months to get familiar with her again.

During the pandemic in China, live-stream viewers, in many cases unable to return home because of social-distancing measures, sought comfort in watching other people’s pets.

Live-streams of pets on Taobao were watched by more than 1 million people on average every day in February, and the number of live-stream pet shows surged 375 per cent compared with a year earlier, according to the e-commerce platform owned by Alibaba.

The outpouring of love from pet keepers boosted online sales of pet products, helping pet consumption recover quickly from the impact of brick-and-mortar shop closings amid the pandemic, according to a joint report by Pet Fair Asia, Tmall and Alibaba’s online marketing technology platform Alimama last month.

Online sales of pet products even showed “accelerated growth” this year despite Covid-19, after reaching a record high of 30 billion yuan ($4.3 billion) last year, according to the report. Online sales of cat products jumped 37 per cent last year from 2018, while that of dog products were up 19 per cent.

Online delivery platforms have also seen a spike in the sales of pet products. Last month, food delivery service giant said that the number of pet-related products purchased on its platform surged by 300 per cent in the first half of this year from a year earlier. Among them, the number of food delivery orders for pets rose 135 per cent, with an average price at 125 yuan per order.

“The online sales boomed as pet keepers got prepared for possible production and logistic disruptions during the pandemic,” Ma Jiangyin, an analyst with consultancy Analysys International, said.

“For the medium to long term, pet [products] consumption is set to increase as the demand for affection and company, especially from singles, empty-nested seniors and DINK families create huge rooms for the market to grow,” Ma added, referring to the demographic segment informally known as “double income no kids”.

As of 2018, 100 million families — or 22 per cent of total households on the mainland — owned a pet, a rate far less than the US, where 67 per cent of families are pet-owners, according to market research firm Frost & Sullivan.

However, the pet industry is expected to grow robustly in the coming years, backed by consumers with purchasing power and willingness to spend, according to Ma.

One sector expected to increase pet ownership, Ma said, is the elderly. Official figures showed approximately 118 million “empty nest” elderly across mainland China, accounting for 51 per cent of the population aged 60 and above, and the number is expected to soar as the country rapidly ages.

Groups of singles and DINK households are as large. China had at least 600,000 DINK households, according to an official survey in 2010, the latest data available, while figures from the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs in 2017 showed there were 200 million singles in China — and that number is still growing.

“Unlike traditional Chinese, who mainly keep pets to watch gates and safeguard properties, nowadays pets are family members, company and comfort,” Ma said. “Heavy pressure from work also generates a need for keeping pets.”

Zhang met Yahaha in October when the stray cat was wandering near a public lawn. Since then, Zhang said, Yahaha has been good company, especially when Zhang was in low spirits.

“I was out of a job and had difficult falling asleep for some time. Every night when I sat before my desk thinking of nothing, Yahaha was by my side, gazing at me keenly. It was so sweet of her,” she said.

Urban residents in China are estimated to spend a total of 202.4 billion yuan (about $28.8 billion) on their pet cats and dogs in 2019, up 18.5 per cent from 2018, according to a report jointly published by and Pet Fair Asia last year. Annual expenditures on pets averaged at 5,561 yuan per pet last year, up 545 yuan from 2018.

The several thousand yuan of expenditure was “affordable, but not a small number”, Zhang said.


Category: China

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