With diners gathered around cauldrons of boiling soup, dropping meat and vegetables into the broth, hot pot is a quintessentially communal Chinese dish. But the country’s dominant chain has a new weapon to attract single diners: stuffed bears.
The introduction of large plush toys to accompany solo diners in the 200 outlets of the Haidilao chain highlights the efforts of businesses in China to take advantage of a demographic shift creating a rising number of single consumers.
“They help people feel less lonely,” said Wang Ping, a waitress at a Haidilao in Shanghai, suggesting the Financial Times choose between a large teddy bear and a stuffed yellow chicken.
China’s population of adults living alone has grown 16 percent since 2012 to reach 77m, according to government statistics compiled by consultancy Euromonitor. By 2021, the number is set to rise to 92m.
The shift is driven by a trend towards later marriage in China, led by prosperous cities. In Shanghai, the average first marriage age for women has reached 30, up from 27 in 2011. Marriages are also shorter due to a doubling of the divorce rate in the past decade.
16 percent of China’s urban population now lives alone, according to the Boston Consulting Group.
“The trend is accompanied by a profound change in people’s perceptions of remaining single: the concept is no longer stigmatised,” the group said in a recent report, meaning singles “dine, travel and pursue activities by themselves”.
Companies have responded to the trend, which mirrors demographic shifts already experienced by China’s east Asian neighbours South Korea and Japan. Japanese chain Muji has introduced smaller rice cookers, ovens and kettles aimed at Chinese singles.
Alibaba created Singles Day each November 11 as a celebration of the unattached lifestyle. It is now an annual consumer juggernaut, racking up Rmb120.7bn of sales in China in one day last year.
Asked on what they would most like to spend their time, China’s singles chose watching films online and travelling “to make their plain and mundane lives more exciting”, according to a recent report by consultancy Mintel. They are “less likely to travel for the connection with their family or shopping compared to married people”, preferring sightseeing and experiencing local culture, the report adds.
Food delivery services have benefited from the trend. The sector saw 44 percent sales growth in China last year, according to consultancy Bain. Yang Gengshen, a spokesman for Ele.me, one of China’s largest delivery services, which reported sales growth of 127 percent in the first half of this year, said: “In my experience, very few single people are willing to cook for themselves.”
Meituan-Dianping, a restaurant review and food delivery company, said 65 percent of its orders came from unmarried customers, with fast food the most popular order for single consumers.
“Single are the most important group of customers for us,” said Wang Pu Zhong, general manager of Meituan’s on-demand delivery service. “Chinese food is quite complicated . . . it takes a lot of time, so single people will think it is a waste of time compared to ordering take-out,” he added.
Single eaters are a common sight in fast food restaurants and convenience stores, but more upscale restaurants have found it hard to attract singles because of a continued stigma about dining alone. “We only get a few single customers each day,” said Ms Wang, the waitress.
Shanghai singleton Chen Nie, 23, experienced a gamut of emotions when offered a teddy bear at Haidilao. “I was shocked at first. Then I felt warm,” she said. “But in the end I felt awkward because it reminded me of the fact that I’m single.”