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Pasta imperfect as noodle sales drop

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2016-07-18 09:27

Pasta imperfect as noodle sales drop

Li Xiaotian/China Daily

Sales of instant noodles have been on a five-year decline in China, which may be the outcome of many unrelated factors. Higher purchasing power and more sophisticated palates are two obvious culprits, but so is the law of gravity.

Instant noodles are called "convenience noodles" in the Chinese mainland. The latest report that its annual sales dropped 12.5 percent in 2015 does not really come as a shock. It has been on a long and painful decline for past several years.

What's not convenient though, is the explanation, or rather, explanations.

Three decades ago when an American businessman was calculating how much he would make by selling one pair of sneakers to every Chinese, I simply laughed.

A pair of Nike shoes could set an ordinary Chinese back a month's salary at the time. To use 1.3 billion as the base of one's market size was simply a misunderstanding of massive proportions.

Instant noodles, however, may fit into the equation. Other than convenience, affordability is a major attraction. But not at the very beginning.

My first encounter with the precooked and dried noodle block was in 1982, when a richer classmate from a big city brought a packet. The whole dorm room was flabbergasted. It had a bling-bling effect.

Soon, it appeared in a movie scene, along with a refrigerator, where it was touted as a sign of new wealth-very much like characters in The Tiny Times movies speaking of their ultraexpensive mugs.

I guess the days of instant noodles as a luxury food item were short-lived. When I returned to China a decade later, it was everywhere. Actually 1992 was the year Master Kong, the reigning beverage champion, first entered the mainland market, which has seen an average of 20 percent annual growth since.

The most concentrated consumption must be in long-distance trains where instant noodles were the staple by default. For many years it must have been the most democratic food of all. It was slurped with equal gusto in the soft-berth section and the hard-seat section.

Then I heard that the sales of instant noodles were used as an indicator for the living and moving pattern of migrant workers. It made sense.

This demographic had the highest need for this form of food. So the downturn in sales volumes could well speak volumes of a corresponding decrease in the number of workers who leave home for faraway jobs.

But there are other factors at play.

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