Mini karaoke booths, one-person gyms and games that offer virtual friendship: welcome to China’s loneliness economy.
Solo gyms and karaoke for one: welcome to the loneliness economy
The country has an estimated 200 million single people, and firms have cottoned on to the fact that singles are increasingly affluent and want to spend their cash.
Take the case of twenty-something Beijinger Jodie Zuo, who paid $4 to sing for 15 minutes in a corner of a supermarket in Beijing on a Sunday afternoon.
“I just planned to buy some snacks,” she said. “Tempted by the mini karaoke, I sang eight songs and it made me feel less bored.”
Tucked away in shopping malls, cinemas, airports and even subway stations, there are now at least 20,000 mini karaoke booths operating across China, with an estimated market value of more than $500 million.
These tiny glass units, usually equipped with an air conditioner and a couple of chairs and headsets, are similar to traditional karaoke bars but enable people to sing on their own.
“It’s cool that you can enjoy yourself wholeheartedly and you don’t have to make conversation or endure others’ microphone obsessions," says Zuo. "When you feel like sharing, you can record the songs you sang and send them to your friends through your smartphone.”
Zuo represents a new type of Chinese consumer that firms want to target: well-educated, young and willing to spend – but spend on things they do on their own.
The people in this target group are usually single and live in rented apartment in a city away from their family. They seek entertainment and other outlets in order to cope with loneliness.
While there are no clear estimates of the size of China’s loneliness economy, Hu Xingdou of the Beijing Institute of Technology expects it eventually to overtake Japan’s and become the biggest in the world.
In Japan, the loneliness economy is driven by different factors. Instead of young millenials working away from home, Japan has the world’s fastest-ageing population. More than a quarter of the population is over 65. That figure is set to rise to 40% in three decades.
“Japanese people have faith in their employers, who they usually serve for their whole lifetime; western people can work closely with various communities, clubs and charity groups,” Hu said.
“[But] as long as China suppresses the development of non-governmental organizations, Chinese people are destined to be lonelier than people elsewhere.”
Mark Greeven, an associate professor at Zhejiang University, says that young Chinese people – especially millennials – may be looking for individual experiences and personalized services: not unlike their peers in other countries.
More than half of the country’s single men and women are estimated to have between $130 and $330 more disposable income than the monthly average.
Xiabu Xiabu, a restaurant chain that serves up hotpot – a large dish that is usually shared between friends or family – offers “one person, one pot” meals in its 300-plus fast food sites.
This focus on the solo consumer has paid off. The firm has outperformed many traditional operators over the past year and seen its share price triple.
One-person gyms have also started to spring up in residential areas of Beijing.
People can use a treadmill in a five-square meter glass box in the street, while they watch a video on a TV screen or listen to music.
Since 1979, hundreds of millions of people have left rural villages to live and work in cities, amid the country’s rapid urbanization.
Facing long, tedious commutes, tiring jobs and competitive workplaces, today's urban workers find solace in entertainment technology, says Greeven.
“There is plenty of evidence that youngsters would rather spend time on their smartphones than dating, working and just hanging around,” he adds.
Which brings us to the hugely successful Japanese smartphone game Tabikaeru: Travel Frog, which was the top free simulation game on China’s Apple app store for months.
Its protagonist, a cute amphibian with wanderlust, sends players postcards from his travels around Japan.
“I hadn’t heard from it for three days, so when I received a postcard from the frog I burst into tears,” says 26-year-old photographer Kelly Hui.
“It is a dear friend to me. Many times, I feel it is me, being independent and doing whatever I like to do alone.”
The little frog may have more in common with its users than they do with each other.