BEIJING — Some Chinese consumer brands are looking for growth overseas, in markets like the U.S. and Southeast Asia.
Take Miniso, a Guangdong-based seller of toys and household products. Sometimes called China’s Muji, Miniso opened a flagship store in New York City’s SoHo in February.
The store’s gross merchandise value — a measure of sales over time — is clocking around $500,000 a month, with $1 million a month likely by December, founder and CEO Jack Ye told CNBC in late June.
More importantly, he said that for directly operated stores in the United States, Miniso’s gross profit margin is well above 50%.
“If we can gain a firm foothold here and create a good business, we will have no problem in the U.S. overall,” Ye said in Mandarin, according to a CNBC translation. His goal is to become the first “$10 and under” retailer worldwide.
Miniso stores began popping up in mainland China nearly 10 years ago, with overseas expansion beginning in 2015 in Singapore. As of March, the company said 37% of its 5,113 stores were overseas.
Faster growth outside China
Like many businesses, Miniso saw sales drop during the pandemic. More than two-thirds of its revenue still comes from China. But in the last several months, data showed a relatively rapid pickup internationally versus domestically, a result of the varying effects of the pandemic.
In the nine months ended March 31, the company said, its China revenue grew by 11% year on year to 5.91 billion yuan, versus 48% growth overseas to 1.86 billion yuan.
China’s retail sales have lagged ever since the pandemic began in 2020. A slump in the housing market hasn’t helped. Locals’ inclination to save, rather than spend or invest, has climbed to its highest in 20 years, according to People’s Bank of China surveys.
“Chinese companies expanding into overseas markets will be a major trend going forward,” said Charlie Chen, head of consumer research at China Renaissance. “China has actually entered a relatively wealthy stage with a relatively high per capita GDP.”
He pointed out that for products like air conditioners, penetration among rural households was 73.8% in 2020 — and even higher at 149.6% in urban areas. China Renaissance expects those penetration rates will increase steadily in the next few years.
“There is very little incremental volume or incremental demand that can be created in China in a short period of time,” Chen said. “For these air conditioner, home appliance companies, where they can get more revenue, it’s overseas.”
In Southeast Asia, air conditioners have a household penetration rate of 15%, according to the International Energy Agency.
Home appliance companies Midea, Hisense and Haier Smart Home have pressed into markets outside China over the last several years. Haier even acquired General Electric’s appliance unit for $5.4 billion in 2016. Hisense’s goal is that by 2025, overseas markets will generate half of its total revenue.
Those companies are seeing strong growth overseas, if not faster than in China.
“Definitely if [Chinese companies] want to get into overseas markets, [they] need to build their brand, need to fight with existing competitors,” Chen said. “The cost will not be low. Initially they would not be profitable. But they are investing.”
If Chinese businesses are able to build their brand overseas, they can compete with lower selling prices since they own or work directly with factories in China. That has helped companies like Shein become an international e-commerce giant.
Similarly, Miniso’s Ye said his strategy in the U.S. is combining the company’s supply chain network in China with New York designers’ work — so products can go from designs to store shelves in about three months.
That process could take six months or even a year if the design firm needed to find its own factories, Ye claimed.
“Overseas, what we lack right now are design ideas suitable for locals,” he said. He said Miniso plans to open its North America product development center later this year and is looking for office space in New York.
Other Chinese companies have pressed on with overseas expansion despite Covid travel restrictions.
Ant Group, the fintech affiliate of Alibaba, announced in June it launched a digital wholesale bank in Singapore after receiving approval from the Monetary Authority of Singapore.
Also in June, Hong Kong-listed toy company Pop Mart tested U.S. waters by opening its first temporary location near Los Angeles. The company sells sets of collectible toy figures — in unmarked boxes. That means a customer might get a new toy to add to a collection, or the same toy as the customer has already bought.
Like Miniso, Pop Mart stores have become commonplace in Chinese malls. There’s even a Pop Mart store at Universal Beijing Resort.
It remains to be seen whether recent overseas growth will last for those Chinese companies.
For business or geopolitical reasons, many Chinese businesses haven’t found success abroad. Take ZTE’s failure to expand its smartphone business in America after U.S. sanctions.
Wildly successful companies like short video company TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, have come under U.S. government pressure over data security concerns.
That’s not to mention the inherent challenge of becoming an efficient international organization. A CNBC report on Chinese tech companies found the business culture at home — which involves heavy use of Mandarin and long hours — often made its way overseas and discouraged local employees from staying.
But whether in electric cars or home appliances, conversations with many Chinese businesses reveal a deep-seated but vague ambition that hasn’t been swayed by the pandemic: to become a global company.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of Universal Studios and CNBC.