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María Costa: "A combination of physical stores and online sales will be the nature of retail in the near future"

María Costa. Director of Child Research at AIJU


The Chinese babycare market offers many opportunities and possibilities, as it targets a young audience that wants to provide maximum safety, quality and innovation to their children, says María Costa, Director of Child Research at AIJU, who stresses the need for manufacturers to bet on safety and for retailers not to ignore the online channel.

Many babies in China are taken care of by their grandparents. How do you see this situation? What kind of children’s products will be needed for these kinds of families?
This is a logical consequence of the employment situation of young parents in China, where there is no balance between work and family life. Instead, people work long days and do not have time to take care of their children. Having the grandparents look after their children is a good option, as is another solution adopted by some parents, who prefer to send their children to residential boarding schools.

Each option has its advantages and disadvantages. Growing up at a residential school allows children to have greater interaction with their peers, which brings an increase in social skills training. Children brought up by their grandparents receive highly personalized care, but they can also become more self-centred and spoilt. The final result depends heavily on the educational approach and the characteristics of the caregivers in both cases.

In families where the grandparents take care of babies, parents value products that make their routines easier, which allow them to move around with their children quickly and easily, especially those that offer multiple functions. Two key themes for this profile are the concepts of "multifunctional" and "intuitive/easy to use" products. They seek products that perform a variety of functions. Why? So that grandparents have all the necessary elements to care for the baby with relatively few products. For example, baby furniture such as cribs that double as play areas or incorporate toys that can be played with, or products that can perform various functions associated with the same task, with the aid of accessories or attachments. An example is a baby bottle with different nozzles, which can act as a nursing bottle, a baby cup, or to carry water when the baby is taken out for a walk. These are some examples, many more can be found.

Safety always comes first in the Chinese market. In your point of view, what do Chinese babycare product brands do to meet this requirement?
Safety is a fundamental aspect of baby products no matter where you are in the world. However, in the social situation of families with only one child, this variable becomes fundamental. Children, especially in the first months of life, instantly inspire feelings of tenderness in us owing to their helplessness and vulnerability.

In an investigation by Research in 2012 (involving 2,443 adult consumers with children under 6 years of age, in 8 cities in mainland China), it was found that parents with children under 1 year of age preferred to buy baby products at "maternity and baby stores" rather than at the supermarket or hypermarket. This fact was due to parents seeking out especially safe and healthy products: those made especially for newborns. Small children often have weak immune systems, so parents are particularly concerned with their personal and environmental hygiene to prevent them from becoming sick from bacterial infections. The importance of safety in baby products continues to grow as parents' desire to protect their children increases, going so far as to engender a trend known as "Safety Obsessions".

Companies must respond to this demand with products of consistently high quality and safety, and communicate this to parents so they are aware of this value and understand it. Brands must create safe products. In China this means that they must not only meet the required safety standards but actually surpass them, and be able to communicate this fact to the consumer. They should be aware that the Chinese market is demanding confidence and authenticity from the products offered to consumers, and that they have added value that has been tested and proven safe.

There is a big market in China for baby and infant education. Do you see any opportunities for foreign baby education companies and experts to work in China? Or will this be hard because of the completely different culture? There are many international baby education brands now in China, what do you think of that?
Without doubt, the baby products market in China is huge. With more than 15 million babies born each year over the last 5 years, it is considered the second largest consumer market (after the U.S.) for baby and children's goods. This market offers tremendous opportunities for all businesses involved with children's products or services. Of course, it can also provide many interesting opportunities for experts in childhood education.

All educational approaches require a good understanding of the cultural reality of the environment and adapting to different types of family. You cannot export educational programs and apply them in other countries without first adapting them to the context. Chinese parenting styles reflect different cultural norms and values, with different expectations. For this reason, international education programs should take this into account in order to adapt to family demands, while still providing the innovative educational approaches required for UNESCO objectives over the coming years.

China should also understand how to make use of its own cultural values to provide quality education that combines traditional values with modern social values. I think it isa very good idea to have a diversity of educational options. In a pluralistic society, it is important for parents to have various educational options to choose their children's education and future.

Young parents in China prefer shopping online. How do you view the trend in online shopping? What advantages and risks does online shopping entail?
This is a trend that is understandably highly pervasive in China, where consumers are very pragmatic when it comes to making purchases. They study what they want before deciding what to purchase, set a budget, weigh up the various possibilities, etc. internet shopping fits this consumer profile like a glove.

Firstly, this trend shows the demand young parents have for a diversity of shopping options or for products of various international brands. Secondly, it shows the confidence they have in using the internet for shopping, the convenience of being able to do so from their mobile devices, at whatever time of the day or week they can dedicate time to it.

A combination of physical stores and online sales will be the nature of retail in the near future. Parents will search the internet for information on child rearing, to investigate the range of available products, compare prices, find discounts, and read the opinions of other parents on forums. In contrast, parents also value the shopping experience of a physical store, it is an important emotional experience; going shopping is almost considered a leisure activity. It will also be fundamental, especially for "durable" products, such as baby strollers, baby car seats or children's furniture, which they prefer to touch, testing the product before deciding to buy it.

The overall trend is for multiple channels: the store as a place to show off the product, or a place to pick it up, while shopping is done online; or the opposite: information is sought out online but they end up buying from a store. All these possibilities interact in the minds of these young parents, who explore the internet before purchasing products for their babies.

What important knowledge should Chinese babycare products companies be aware of, in doing business in Europe or in dealing with European companies?
Children's products companies in China should be aware of the mentality of the European consumer: the importance the European consumer gives to actual and "perceived" quality of baby products. They should be aware of safety as a key factor in these types of products. As I have already mentioned, brands must create safe products, which means they not only meet but actually exceed safety regulations, and that this is communicated properly to the consumer. In Europe, a children's product has to be good, have high standards of quality, meet safety standards, but above all it must meet, or even surpass, the expectations that parents have for these types of products. This does not mean merely obtaining safety certificates, but verifying that the product is really safe and does not pose a risk to the physical and/or mental health of the child it is intended for.

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