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China’s ‘cherry freedom’ vanishes as consumers rethink their spending habits

Few products tell the consumer spending story in China better than fruits such as cherries, as before the pandemic, demand for Chilean cherries and Peruvian avocados from China’s middle-class seemed insatiable.

The Corona-virus, however, quickly put a stop to the demand, with merchants at the Jiangnan wholesale fruit and vegetable market in Guangzhou – China’s largest fruit market – feeling the full force of battered consumer confidence amid darkened job prospects and incomes.

“Demand at Jiangnan market has plummeted since the outbreak started. Retailers are just very cautious about placing orders … most of us have been losing money, whether selling imported fruit or domestic fruit,” said Li Xiaoqiang, a fruit importer.

“We saw a short-lived recovery during the national Labour Day holiday and Mother’s Day [during the first week of May], but now it has become as sluggish as March and early April again.

“We keep reducing the prices. Take Chilean grapes, for example. The wholesale price was 180 yuan (US$25) for 8kg [before the coronavirus], and it is now just 100 or even 80 yuan. Our importers’ losses could be up to 800,000 yuan (US$113,000) for a container of Chilean grapes.”

Egyptian oranges also sold for up to 100 yuan for 15kg around the same time last year, but now only sell for 70 yuan. “Imported cherries will be even harder to sell,” Li added.

China’s fruit imports had been rising steadily over the past decade from a small base of US$1.63 billion in 2009 to US$10.3 billion in 2019, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. While China’s economic growth has decelerated in recent years, China’s spending on imported fruits kept rising, including an increase of 23.2 per cent in 2019 after China became a net fruit importer in 2018.

“I just got a pay cut last month and some friends I know were unemployed due to the impact of the outbreak. To be honest, the only thing in my head these days is how to cut spending and save enough money to pay the property mortgage,” said Patricia Lin, a Shanghai-based white collar worker. “Fruits are good and necessary for health, but I think I won’t be able to afford imported cherries or Japanese grapes for a long while. Instead, I will turn to affordable local fruits, like apples and pears.”


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