Buyers return to China’s largest trade fair but orders still elusive

By David Kirton

GUANGZHOU (Reuters) – Foreign buyers returned in force for the autumn round of the world’s largest trade show, heading towards pre-COVID numbers, but Chinese sellers said orders remain low as Christmas nears, with few expecting global demand to recover soon.

With three days left of the Canton Fair’s final phase, some 157,200 overseas buyers had visited by Saturday, organisers said, to throng booths sprawling over 1.5 million sq m (1.8 million sq yards), or the equivalent of 280 football fields.

The visitor numbers were up 53.6% on the spring event, which was the first after the COVID-19 pandemic, and drive attendance figures into the same ballpark as the 186,000 foreigners who visited in the autumn of 2019.

“You would never know COVID had happened,” said David Holmes, a British buyer for the hospitality industry in Britain and North America, who has been visiting for more than 15 years.

Holmes was scouring the glass and ceramic products among tens of thousands of booths selling everything from tents and kitchen worktops to goblin costumes.

But 2023 had been a tough year, Holmes reckoned.

“With inflation coming down, one would hope that things will get a bit easier, the current situation will improve, and at that point the consumer will get more confidence.

“At the moment they’re wanting to save the money they’ve got for heating homes and feeding families.”

Ten exporters who normally do much of their business in Europe said sales there were down 10% to 30% this year.

“Everyone is affected, because the price of electricity has gone up a lot, and the war with Russia and Ukraine is still going on, and now with Israel, a lot of people are really scared,” said Jimmy Chen, the boss of Chengkuo Group.

Sales were down about a tenth, said Chen, speaking in front of his company’s display of life-sized Father Christmas dolls and elves lined up on shelves.

“We do a lot (of business) with German markets and if they’re not strong, then Western Europe’s feeling unstable.”

The most recent trade data showed China’s slump in exports and imports was gradually easing, as exports in September declined 6.2% from a year ago, a moderation from August’s drop of 8.8%.

The trend appeared to be backed up by improvement last month in new export orders featuring in an official factory survey two weeks ago, partly because of a peak export shipping season for Christmas products and favourable base effects.

While orders were finished for this coming Christmas, Chen was still hopeful for an improvement by the second half of 2024.

Xiao Haicheng, of Foshan Gaoming Yuehua Sanitary Ware, said the maker of jacuzzis and luxury showers plans to push sales to countries participating in the Belt and Road initiative, to help offset this year’s revenue drop of 30% in sales to Europe, its main market.

“We’ve got to supplement it somewhere, though we’re definitely more optimistic than during the pandemic,” he said.

The European Union’s trade deficit with China widened to $276.6 billion in 2022 from $208.4 billion a year earlier, Chinese customs data shows.

China’s exports to the European Union fell 10.6% on the year in the first nine months of 2023, to stand at $382.18 billion, while exports to the United States fell 16.4% to $372.25 billion, official data shows.

(Reporting by David Kirton; Additional reporting by Joe Cash in Beijing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)