Shopping bags small

The Ambience Mall in Gurgaon, just outside of the Indian capital of New Delhi, is filled with young, affluent shoppers. Riding down the escalators past a McDonald’s kiosk selling “McSpicy Paneers,” they’re hunting for stores like Reliance Shoes and the Studio Firang, as well as outlets that would be more familiar to Canadians: Levi Strauss, La Senza and Bata. Collectively, Indian teenagers are spending nearly US$12 billion a year, and their spending power is growing at a rate of 12% annually.

Teens and young adults throughout Asia share the aspirational shopping taking place at the Ambience Mall. Among emerging markets’ populations, half are under the age of 25. China’s under-25 group is larger than any other country’s population and they’re part of a surge in consumer spending that has reached US$3.3 trillion annually, rising at 8% a year—faster than China’s GDP. The 16 to 30 age group accounts for half of that spending. Contrast that with the developed world where youth-oriented merchandising is barely growing at all.

So, what are young Asians buying and how can you get your products into their home? The consultancy AT Kearney notes that Chinese shoppers love foreign clothing and will gladly trade up to higher quality to impress their friends. Electronics are even more popular in Asia than in the West, where a young Chinese migrant worker will spend a month’s wages (about US$830) on a new iPhone. Even seemingly banal items like chewing gum and chocolate bars sell well, especially if they carry a foreign brand.

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Although foreign goods give status, young Asian consumers tend to be fickle and trade up, down or sideways more frequently than elsewhere. One recent study found that the top five brands in 10 consumer categories lost up to two-thirds of their customers in just one year. So how can small exporters get their products before Asia’s burgeoning ranks of young consumers?

1. Know the cultural differences

Just because young Chinese want to acquire things don’t assume that their tastes are identical to those of their counterparts in Canada. “The biggest mistake is assuming that young people around the world are the same,” says Howard Davies, a partner in Deloitte’s strategy practice. “When you dig beneath the surface, the cultural differences can be quite a big barrier to entering the market, and they’re not always obvious when you’re 10,000 miles away.” Do your homework: you need to visit Asian malls, troop through trade shows and stay abreast of trends.

2. Play up the Canuck kitsch

Chinese youth are increasingly interested in made-in-Canada goods, so try for uniqueness or goods that evoke Canadian traditional motifs, such as Red Canoe or Roots. You’ll have an advantage if your produce niche items such as specialty sports equipment, like Edmonton’s Roswell Wake-Air. According to the International Society of Plastic Surgery, China is the third-largest market for cosmetic treatments in the world, behind the U.S. and Brazil, so beauty-enhancement products are a strong bet.

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3. Make sure you have a robust—and slick—web presence…

Young Asians are adept at buying over the Internet. India’s e-commerce trade doubled to US$14 billion in 2012, with a tenth of that amount in retail sales. This year in China alone e-commerce sales will hit US$540 billion. AT Kearney says that nation has become the world’s largest e-commerce market. (Canada places a distant 10th.) Make your product’s Web pages available in simplified Chinese, Hindi, Bahasa and Korean. Get your products listed on the major domestic e-commerce sites such as China’s Tmall, South Korea’s Coupang or India’s OLX.

4. …And don’t forget about mobile

Just because they’re using e-commerce doesn’t mean they’re doing it on PCs, which still have low penetration in many Asian homes. They use cellphones—three-quarters of Indians have cell phones and a Nielsen Global Mobile Youth study found that more than 10% of Indians have smart phones and a quarter of all young people in China have them. Indonesia famously has a huge following for BlackBerry phones.

5. Cater to their needs on the home front

Don’t overlook selling to Asian tourists when they come to Canada. By 2020, 200 million Chinese tourists will be roaming the earth, and they love to shop abroad so they can avoid domestic mark-ups and taxes. Make your products Chinese-friendly with labels they can read. And because Asians are so wired into the net, developing a buzz around your product here at home will be seen by Asian consumers always hungry for the next big thing.

Read: 5 Consumer Trends to Watch

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