Chinese Women Are Driving Sportswear Markets

Last updated on February 16th, 2024

Chinese women fitness

At the age of 31, Shao Wei stumbled upon the joy of running while studying in the U.S. However, upon her return to Shanghai for employment, she found it difficult to maintain an active lifestyle due to various commitments and responsibilities.

"After one year of not being very active I felt my physical condition is not as good as before and my work was very stressful; that’s quite common in China’s big metropolitan areas. So I started running again and found it a great distraction from work. Then I started going to the gym again and I just tried everything. I do body combat, body pump, spin classes and yoga." - Shao Wei

China is experiencing a surge in women's interest in fitness, which is a significant shift from the traditional beauty standards that prioritize extreme thinness. Now, there is a growing acceptance and appreciation for women with more defined and curvaceous bodies.

The rise of this phenomenon, like other popular trends embraced by the country's expanding middle class, can be attributed to the widespread desire to showcase a desirable way of life on the country's most popular social media platforms, WeChat and Sina Weibo. Additionally, the impact of celebrities and influential figures, often referred to as KOLs, cannot be underestimated.

Yuan ShanShan fitness

Shanshan Yuan, a popular TV star, caused quite a commotion when she decided to share her fitness journey and exercises on Weibo. Her well-toned abdominal muscles quickly became the talk of the town, capturing the attention of millions. In fact, the phrase "Shanshan Yuan's strong abs" received an astonishing 88 million views at its peak.

Gao Qian fitness

In June, Gao Qian, a popular fitness influencer, rose to fame across the country when she won the prestigious "most gorgeous derriere" competition. Gao, who openly admits to being obsessed with fitness, attributes her well-defined rear to her dedicated routine of daily six-hour sessions of squats and lunges.

Shao Wei embarked on her fitness adventure by taking up running, and a growing number of Chinese young adults, regardless of gender, are following suit. This trend is primarily driven by the sport's accessibility, the belief that long-distance running is well-suited for Chinese physiques, and the ability to share milestones and achievements on social media, magnifying the satisfaction derived from physical activity.

According to data from the General Administration of Sports of China, the quantity of marathons held in China rose from 22 in 2011 to 123 in 2015, with a participation of over a million individuals.

"Getting a spot in the Shanghai Marathon is insanely competitive. I think it's become trendy, so people don't want to feel they are left out. Also, the promotion of health is becoming more important. The work, life, the food we eat and diseases we get that weren't common before, all of these things have raised an alarm among the younger generations and fitness is an important part of that." - Shao Wei

China's surge in health and wellness has sparked a rise in the sportswear industry, to the point where it could surpass luxury goods by 2020. Research from Euromonitor suggests that this sector is projected to have a retail value of over 300 billion yuan, equivalent to $45.85 billion, by 2021. This is a significant increase from the 187 billion yuan ($28.58 billio) in 2016.

In China, the sportswear industry has long been controlled by four key players. These include two global powerhouses, Nike and Adidas, as well as two prominent local brands, Li Ning and Anta. Collectively, these companies hold a significant 50.9 percent share of the market.

Maybe you have already known that the current branded shoes, such as Nike and adidas, they even produce shoes for Chinese New Year.

However, in response to the growing trend of adopting healthier lifestyles and engaging in fitness activities, the market is quickly diversifying. This creates opportunities for smaller brands aiming to attract a more selective group of Chinese consumers.

Chinese girl fitness

Matthew Crabbe, the Asia-Pacific research director at market research firm Mintel Group, has observed a change in the marketing strategies used by sportswear brands to target Chinese consumers. Instead of relying solely on celebrity athlete endorsements, there has been a shift towards focusing on grassroots participation. This shift is particularly noticeable among women, who are increasingly getting involved in sports at a grassroots level.

"This is really one of the dichotomies that sportswear has faced in China is this push and pull between the big sports — the top-down elite athletes side of thing. At the same time, you’ve got the grassroots and what people aspire to do for themselves." - Matthew Crabbe

Liz Flora, who serves as the editor for Asia-Pacific Research at L2 Digital, recently published a report called "Activewear China". In this report, Flora predicts that there will be a surge in the variety of international brands entering the Chinese market. These brands will come prepared with advanced digital strategies and will specifically target female consumers.

"China's activewear market is predicted to see significant growth in the next five years, so more brands are entering the market and expanding their store footprints. Both the newcomers and local Chinese competitors have been developing sophisticated digital innovations in WeChat marketing, omnichannel and e-commerce, so Nike and Adidas will have to stay on top of their game digitally if they want to keep their high market share." - Flora

"Lululemon hosts yoga classes in major Chinese cities that have been particularly popular with women [and] activewear brands have also joined in on the trend of hiring ‘Little Fresh Meat’ celebrities to promote their products. These young, attractive male celebrities are generally quite effective at reaching a female fan base."

Last month, Lululemon disclosed its Q2 outcomes, which demonstrated a remarkable 70 percent surge in the Asian market compared to the previous year. This growth was primarily driven by the brand's momentum in China, where it experienced an outstanding 350 percent increase in sales during the second quarter of the previous year.

"China is one of our most exciting and unprecedented growth opportunities. Building on Lululemon’s exceptional performance and resonance so far, we’re accelerating our expansion strategy in Shanghai and Beijing, and building our presence in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chengdu." - Lululemon chief executive officer Laurent Potdevin

"As Chinese Millennials are some of the most progressive and digitally engaged consumers in the world, we’re focused on exploring and developing new approaches to capturing this audience. From incredible experiences like ‘Unroll China’ to the collective impact of our physical stores and digital presence, we have strong brand momentum to connect with the growing community of Chinese consumers choosing an active, mindful lifestyle."

In response to the growing trend of fitness enthusiasm among middle-class, urban, Millennial Chinese consumers, Lane Crawford, a department store, has expanded its selection of international boutique sportswear. Over the past few years, they have added brands like Perfect Moment, Live the Process, and Adidas by Stella McCartney to their inventory.

"With the trend of well-being and active lifestyle, ath-leisure is one of our fastest growth categories in China and I believe it will continue to grow. Much of this is associated with the evolving lifestyle and wanting to not just look good but feel good at the same time." - Lane Crawford’s chief brand officer Joanna Gunn

Not only are smaller global sportswear brands prepared to snatch market share from the industry's dominant players, but international fast-fashion retailers like H&M and Uniqlo are also gaining traction among Chinese sportswear consumers. Mintel's Crabbe suggests that these retailers are likely to pose the most significant challenge to Nike and Adidas.

Chinese millennials fitness

Not only are smaller global sportswear brands prepared to snatch market share from the industry's dominant players, but international fast-fashion retailers like H&M and Uniqlo are also gaining traction among Chinese sportswear consumers. Mintel's Crabbe suggests that these retailers are likely to pose the most significant challenge to Nike and Adidas.

"Nike and Adidas have really established market share but that doesn’t mean they won’t also be challenged by up-and-coming brands. When you are looking at the fashion market generally, there are plenty of companies like Uniqlo coming in and selling sportswear, so there is competition from the fashion industry as well. That kind of disruption is more likely."

Chinese Millennial consumers are not known for their loyalty towards brands. According to a UBS survey conducted in 2016, this age group in China is not only less loyal compared to previous generations, but also less loyal than their American Millennial counterparts.

"I think for me, I care about style and quality. It doesn’t have to be one specific brand — local or international, famous or not-so-famous. For me I would choose because of quality and the look. I want to look good in what I am wearing." - Shao Wei

"I would be prepared to pay a couple of hundred [yuan] for a top or shorts or leggings from Nike, Adidas or Lululemon. I also buy from H&M sports section, Victoria Secret and Lorna Jane. [Lorna Jane has] very good-looking outfits, the color and cut and the look are very cute but one piece of that is two or three pieces from H&M or Victoria Secret, so I won’t buy all the time from Lorna Jane." - Shao Wei