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Is second-hand and vintage shopping popular in China?

You may not have heard of them, but Alibaba's Idle Fish and Tencent's Zhuan Zhuan are driving China's second hand revolution – here's how and why

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An increasing number of shoppers in China are embracing second-hand goods, driven by platforms such as Alibaba’s Xianyu and Tencent-backed Zhuan Zhuan. Robynne Tindall finds out more

Turn on the TV in the UK recently, and you will struggle to miss the adverts for resale platforms like Vinted and eBay. Millions of people have started buying and selling second-hand apparel, homeware and more amid growing environmental concerns and a severe cost-of-living crisis.

In China, although second-hand or vintage clothing has not traditionally been desirable for the average consumer, the resale market has also been taking off in recent years.

launchpad CBBC

Data show that the value of the market rose from RMB 300 billion (£32 billion) in 2015 to RMB 1.05 trillion (£112 billion) by 2020, and according to a 2021 report released by consulting firm Frost & Sullivan and Tsinghua University’s Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy, it is expected to reach nearly RMB 3 trillion (£320 billion) in 2025.

Much of this growth has been supported by apps like Plum (Hongbulin), Alibaba-owned Idle Fish (Xianyu), and Tencent-backed Zhuan Zhuan, which tap into the well-established e-commerce habits of Chinese consumers. Idle Fish and Zhuan Zhuan are consumer-driven marketplaces (similar to Vinted or Depop), while apps like Plum manage the whole consumption process, from authentication for luxury goods to photography to logistics.

Idle Fish’s user base surpassed 500 million in May 2023, and the platform recently introduced a social commerce element via a community forum called Seafood Market, where users can discuss hashtag-based topics. The forum has already proven to be popular with the hobbyists who use the platform to trade collectibles.

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What is driving the growing appreciation of second-hand clothing and goods?

Pre-owned luxury goods are driving a lot of growth in China’s second-hand market, reflecting the cost-conscious, savvy mindset of many Chinese consumers. Chinese consumers came out of China’s strict Covid lockdowns with RMB 6.6 trillion (£760 billion) of savings, but many still feel wary about big spending. The excitement of finding a desirable bag or pair of shoes at a more accessible price is a big reason why many people browse second-hand apps or stores.

However, sales of second-hand luxury goods raise questions about authenticity and counterfeiting. A survey by iiMedia Research found that lack of trust and fear of receiving counterfeit goods stopped over 30% of people from using second-hand platforms.

In response, in March 2023, Idle Fish bolstered its authentication capabilities, allowing users to authenticate over 18 million different items in as little as eight hours.

Beyond luxury goods, a growing awareness of the environmental impact of consumerism – especially among Gen Z/younger millennial consumers – is leading conversations about second-hand clothing in China.

A June 2022 consumer survey by PwC showed that 34% of Chinese consumers “often” or “always” agree that a business’ environmental actions influenced their decision to buy – in the US this figure was just 29%. The Covid-19 pandemic also seems to have accelerated this trend. For example, a KPMG study in 2021 found that since the beginning of the pandemic, 65% of consumers from Greater Bay Area cities have become more conscious of a product’s origins.

Idle Fish claims that the platform and its users reduced three million metric tonnes of carbon emissions over the past year by shopping second-hand instead of buying new.

However, as Zhang Na, founder of sustainable fashion brand Reclothing Bank, pointed out in a recent interview with Tong, second-hand and vintage clothing is also an outlet for creativity and self-expression. “[Previously], the marketplace was conditioned to encourage those consumers [born in the 70s and 80s] to express themselves through luxury brands and a pursuit of upward mobility,” she says. “Now, the new generation of consumers care more about their own unique experiences and identities.”

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The CBBC view

International platforms are likely to have a hard time competing with homegrown apps like Xianyu in the resale field. However, there are still a number of key lessons that British brands can learn from this trend.

While offering resale solutions may not be an option for every brand, incorporating conversations about sustainability into marketing in China in an authentic way is increasingly important for all brands. This can include working with influencers or key opinion consumers (KOCs) that talk about sustainability.

Moreover, it underscores that Chinese consumers are cost-conscious but willing to spend money on high-quality items.

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