What is ‘revenge spending,’ the post-coronavirus shopping spree phenomenon?

May 20, 2020

‘Revenge spending’ is the post-coronavirus buzzword in China. It refers to the impulse to shop after months cooped up in quarantine. But are people in China really spending with a vengeance?

In February, during the peak of China’s coronavirus outbreak, a phrase started trending on the Chinese internet: revenge spending.

The phrase refers to the impulse to shop after months cooped up in quarantine. The country was still on lockdown, but people were already thinking about the shopping sprees they would make after the economy reopened.

In Chinese, using “revenge” before a verb is quite common. Revenge dating, for example, is the frantic search for a rebound after you’ve just been dumped. Revenge eating is the binging that happens after coming off a diet.

Shoppers at a mall in Nantong, eastern China, in May, after the city lifted travel restrictions.
Shoppers at a mall in Nantong, eastern China, in May, after the city lifted travel restrictions. / Photo: ImagineChina

The revenge in these cases is not literal. You’re not necessarily getting back at someone or something per se. Rather, it’s irrational overcompensation for something.

‘Revenge spending’ dates back to the 1980s and is tied to China’s economic rise

The phrase was first used to describe a surge in spending after China’s economy opened up in the 1980s. It was a reaction to decades of abject poverty and economic paralysis. Finally, people had money to spare, and demand for luxury goods spiked.

This year, revenge spending is resurfacing in another context: the coronavirus. It’s specifically referring to post-quarantine shopping sprees.

(Read more: China in the 1980s, when people felt free to speak their minds)

After a months-long lockdown, China started reopening its economy in March. Retail analysts believed consumers would come out of quarantine and overcompensate for months of boredom by making more purchases than normal, with or without rationality.

Indeed, when regional governments started loosening travel restrictions in early April, long lines could be seen at popular tourist destinations. Cities like Shanghai held shopping festivals to encourage consumptions.

Shoppers at a mall in Shanghai in April. The city held a shopping festival to encourage consumption.
Shoppers at a mall in Shanghai in April. The city held a shopping festival to encourage consumption. / Photo: ImagineChina

One Hermes shop in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou made $2.7 million in sales when it reopened on April 11. Luxury publication Tatler reported it to be “the highest revenue made in a single day for a boutique in China.”

But are Chinese people really spending with a vengeance?

While revenge spending as a phrase might be trending online, in real life, the response is mixed.

Most people would rather make and save money than spend, according to a survey conducted by the Chinese consulting firm China Business Future.

And amid the pandemic, most people simply can’t afford to spend. In a survey by the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in China, 60.9% of respondents said they expected their incomes to shrink this year.

So while revenge spending is a buzzword on the Chinese internet, it seems the trend is really just for people who can afford it.

The Chinese internetCoronavirusExplainer

Credit

Producer: Clarissa Wei

Videographer: Shirley Xu

Editor: Hanley Chu

Animation: Annie Hall

Mastering: Victor Peña