Home Consumer Practical guide to China’s smart fitness and sports market

Practical guide to China’s smart fitness and sports market

With fitness streams on Douyin rising 141% year-on-year, and gyms like Lefit more popular than ever, international brands from Lululemon to Apple are all cashing in – shouldn't yours?

by Robynne Tindall
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As China’s population becomes more affluent, it is also becoming more health conscious. During the Covid-19 pandemic, consumers temporarily stopped going to traditional gyms and embraced smart fitness and sports products that allowed them to work out at home. Kristina Koehler-Coluccia from Woodburn Accountants and Advisors explores the opportunities for UK brands

The large and active Chinese millennial population has embraced a healthier lifestyle, joining gyms and fitness classes or buying their own fitness equipment. As a result, China’s sports and fitness market has seen exponential growth, from about 500 gyms in 2001 to more than 100,000 fitness studios in 2022.

The Covid-19 pandemic changed much about how consumers live, including how they work out. Now more than ever, customers are using smart interactive fitness equipment to exercise at home. The smart fitness and sports industry, which includes fitness apps, wearables and smart exercise equipment, will amount to US$5.2 billion in 2023.

Some of the major players include Garmin, Life Fitness, Peloton Interactive, Nautilus, Technogym, Xiaomi, BH Fitness, Tonal, NordicTrack, Echelon, Bowflex, Hydrow and SoulCycle.

China’s fitness boom is also being encouraged by the government, which announced a five-year plan to invest RMB 1.5 trillion (£171.1 billion) to improve its citizen’s fitness levels and fight obesity. The plan focuses mainly on teenagers, who will likely carry on these fitness habits as they age.

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Smartwatches are the leading product in the smart fitness and sports industry

The future of the digital fitness market in China looks promising, with opportunities in smart wearable fitness devices and smart wearable sports devices. The major drivers for the growth of this market are increasing awareness of fitness and rising demand for user-friendly and self-monitoring devices.

Emerging trends include integration and cross-compatibility of personal health data and the introduction of cross-over products.

Smart wearable fitness and sports devices are the most popular products in the market. Experts forecast that the smartwatch segment is expected to witness significant growth due to their versatile features as a wristband.

Within the digital fitness market, smartwatches are expected to remain the largest segment by product type. Multi-functionality, growing health awareness and rising disposable income are the major driving factors spurring growth in this segment.

A wearable fitness tracker may follow several activities depending on the user’s requirements, including goal-setting, sleep tracking, activity tracking, calorie tracking, heart monitoring and step counting.

Fitness apps have also experienced increased popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic. Over 100 million mobile users have at least one fitness app on their phones, and new apps and platforms are popping up daily.

Apps also play an important role in the Chinese government’s push to get the older population more active. Faced with an ageing society, the government wants people of all ages to get active, and they are building new facilities, offering sports programmes, and planning to invest more than RMB 5 trillion in the sports and fitness industry by 2025.

What are the most popular activities in the smart fitness and sports market?

Two of the most popular activities in China are yoga and dance. Since March 2020, there has been an increased interest in yoga in China and revenue in the yoga industry in China reached almost RMB 50 billion (£5.7 billion) in 2020. People had to look for ways to stay active and deal with the stressful atmosphere during prolonged lockdowns. Those who picked up yoga during the pandemic will most likely continue doing it, even now that restrictions have been lifted.

In China, yoga is seen as a way to relieve stress, cultivate an attractive body and keep fit, which is why so many fitness centres offer different types of yoga and dance classes. Even though cardio and bodybuilding sessions are available, most users prefer yoga and dance.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the online fitness market experienced a substantial increase in users, with online yoga being the most popular. Videos of KOLs doing yoga while promoting sportswear and fitness equipment went viral on Chinese social platforms such as Douyin (aka TikTok) and Xiaohongshu.

According to a report from the short-video platform Douyin, the number of fitness videos on the platform in 2022 rose by 134% year-on-year, while the number of content creators for these videos rose by 39%. Compared with the previous year, there was a 208% rise in the number of followers of online fitness trainers. Revenue from live fitness broadcasts on Douyin also rose by 141% year-on-year, with rapid sales growth for many types of exercise equipment.

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According to the 2022 Spring-Summer Sports and Fitness Consumption Trend Report published by the Jingdong Institute of Consumer and Industrial Development, sales of yoga and dance products have risen rapidly. Sales of yoga pants grew by 868%, yoga shoes by 816%, and yoga bags by 104%.

Fitness apps such as Keep, Codoon, and Mi Fit are popular among Chinese consumers. Users can access training tips, find online fitness courses and connect with other fitness enthusiasts and professional trainers via their smartphones. This business model also helps companies expand customer relationships on a different level than before.

Companies leading the way in this field include Lululemon and VAHA, who have created mirrors that double as interactive training screens, and JAXJOX, a buildable home fitness equipment provider based around a touchscreen TV. Fiture is another active brand of fitness mirrors in China, while fitness brands such as Codoon (a fitness app) and Lefit (a chain of gyms) in China have also released smart training mirrors.

Which other areas of the industry can brands tap into?

Many new brands have appeared over the past few years, continuously attracting new investment. Besides fitness apps and smart home fitness equipment, there are many gaps in the market waiting to be tapped.

Some home design brands are developing creative furniture collections that can be turned into training equipment, while beauty brands are launching fragrances inspired by fitness activities like yoga. Some laundry brands have even developed special formulas to deal with the smells generated by sweaty fitness clothes. There is also a lot of scope for new products in the sports nutrition sector too.

New-style fitness gyms supported by digital technology have seen a lot of success in recent years. The aforementioned Lefit, a 24-hour self-service gym chain based in Hangzhou, is emblematic of the new type of gyms that are attracting young users. People can enter a Lefit gym simply by scanning a QR code with the brand’s app.

The brand also has an intelligent management system that can precisely match its users, gyms and fitness instructors, guaranteeing higher operational efficiency and lower costs than conventional gyms. It also offers a pay-per-use model. To date, the brand has opened 754 gyms across the country and attracted more than 6 million users.

Technology is also influencing the sportswear industry. With the help of big data and kinesiology, underwear brand Aimer is striving to develop new materials with less friction and higher air permeability for its yoga and running garments.

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How to succeed in the smart fitness market

For companies in the health and fitness industry, now is a great time to enter the Chinese market. Nevertheless, there are some key steps that need to be taken to be able to sell fitness apps, equipment or clothing in such a highly competitive landscape.

Chinese consumers rely on word-of-mouth marketing and pay attention to recommendations and reviews of people they know or influencers they follow. They won’t buy or pay for anything they have never heard of.

Building a strong online presence for your fitness product is the most important step. The best way to do so is by launching your own Chinese website hosted in China so that consumers can find you on Baidu. You can also use other Baidu platforms, such as online forums and Q&A websites, to start conversations about your brand and learn about the needs of your potential consumers.

For Chinese consumers, the quality of items they buy, as well as the service they get when purchasing, are the most important components. In general, they don’t mind paying a bit more if they think that something is a good investment. Therefore, promoting a high-quality brand is key.

While promoting your brand, highlight its values and educate the audience about the benefits of using your products/service. You can show videos of professional athletes using them (even better if you collaborate with Chinese athletes or sports influencers) and share the opinions of experts.

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Advertising your fitness business through social media, especially on platforms such as WeChat, is another great way to increase your visibility and make yourself known to Chinese users. Many Chinese people follow literally dozens of fitness blogs. Every day, they will look at their news feeds to learn about new workout routines or trendy diets.

You can also use those apps as a testing platform. WeChat allows companies to start official accounts and create WeChat stores, a cheaper option than entering big online marketplaces like Tmall or JD.com, and a way to get an idea of the level of interest in your products. If you want to promote your app, try to build it within WeChat first. This will help you reach a bigger audience, as it’s easier to share and promote within the app.

You can also open accounts on platforms such as Xiaohongshu and Douyin. Those platforms are great for lead generation and reaching a wider audience through different content formats. Xiaohongshu and Douyin also have their own marketplaces, making promoting products and increasing sales easier.

As the fitness market has boomed, so has the number of sports influencers. More and more influencers are popping up on Chinese social media, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic and Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Collaborating with fitness influencers to promote your brand on their social media accounts is one of the best ways to gain visibility and increase sales in China. Influencers can host live streaming sessions showing off your products or use your products while training. You can also collaborate with local gyms and fitness centres, introducing your products to personal trainers that can later promote them to their customers.

Although all the mentioned options are essential for branding and e-reputation, nothing will give you as much exposure as Chinese cross-border e-commerce platforms like Tmall and JD.com. Most Chinese shoppers prefer to purchase products directly from these, as they feel they are safer and more convenient.

China Consumer 2023

This article was produced as part of a series for China Consumer 2023.

Learn more about CBBC’s flagship consumer event of 2023 here.

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