Entering a typical Chinese supermarket and looking around at the distribution of foods and beverages on the shelves, one indication that may strike you as unfamiliar, of even odd, is ‘Leisure food’, xiuxian shipin in Chinese.
Leisure and food are a match made in heaven in any culture, but there is no nation that created a more harmonious marriage between those two concepts than the Chinese. Visit any historic site in a Chinese city, and you will be amazed about the choice of snacks and drinks that are on sale in small shops or by street vendors.
When you then zoom in on the domestic tourists, you will have a hard time spotting one who is not eating or drinking, or at least visibly carrying food in their bags, ready to take it out and have a bite.
Before getting to those sites, or scenic spots, you need to travel. China is a huge country, so travelling can take time, and the best way to kill time in any culture is . . . eating. Chinese airports, train stations and long distance bus terminals are genuine food streets, offering everything the easily bore passengers may want to keep themselves, and their facial muscles in particular, busy. Eating has thus become the favourite way to pass the time on long haul rides in China.
All this has led to the coining of the category leisure food in the Chinese food industry.
It has become an officially recognized term. The library of Eurasia Consult has a collection of Food Industry Yearbooks starting with 1985 until the early 2000s, when the Internet rendered those paper information carriers unnecessary. Leisure Food is a separate section in those books, like the separate shelf for those products in Chinese supermarkets.
Leisure food is a hybrid collection of foods comprising:
- Confectionery (candy, chocolate);
- Bakery products (biscuits, bread, pastries (like mahua);
- Processed fruits, vegetables and nuts (preserved fruits[ e.g, dates, dried plums (huamei) vegetable chips, melon seeds, pickles (e.g. zhacai);
- Tuber or cereal products (e.g. potato chips), guoba;
- Dried fish and meat products (beef jerky, duck gizzards, fish cubes).
One source divides leisure foods in the following subcategories:
|Type||main market||customers||outlets||consumption mode|
|Private consumption||home||family members||Residential areas, special shops, convenience stores||At home|
|Travel food||travelling||travellers||local special shops, supermarkets , airports, railroad stations, tourist spots||Travelling, gift giving|
|Gifts||Gift giving||people in need of gifts||special shops, supermarkets||Gift giving|
What I especially like in this division is the category of ‘gifts’. It always a nice gesture to bring home local delicacies when returning from a trip. And with a country as large and varied as China, there are more local specialties than a person can bring home in a life time. Moreover, gifts play a key role in Chinese culture. This is why Chinese airports and larger railway stations sell local foods in fancy gift packaging. People do not buy those to eat themselves, but to give them to relatives and friends.
Market size and value
There are more than 4000 manufacturers of leisure food in China. Their combined turnover is estimated to reach RMB 643.2 bln in 2017.
It is an interesting market for suppliers of food ingredients. Preservation is key term here, not only referring to keeping the bugs out, but also the preservation of the flavor, color and texture.
This sector is also an interesting market for suppliers of food packaging machinery. All of the above mentioned products need to be packed in small portions, that can be conveniently stowed in ones pocket or hand bag. The preferred size is the single-portion package; a pack you open and empty in one leisurely moment, without the need to close and seal it for the next moment.
Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.