Want Want China Holdings Ltd., one of China’s largest processed-foods companies, is expanding into the lucrative niche market for soy and other plant-based milk products as Chinese families spend more for healthy options.
The Hong Kong-listed company plans to introduce its line of soy and oat milk this year as it forecasts the market for plant-based milk will more than double to about 55 billion yuan ($8 billion) within two to three years, Alex Chen Junjiang, the company’s general director of research and development, said in an interview.
“We’ve put lots of investment into researching and developing kids’ packet products like oat milk, coconut milk and cereal milk that we’ll soon be introducing in the market,” said Chen, speaking at the China Dairy Summit in Beijing. “Growth momentum has been missing in the last few years but we think that it’s returning.”
Chinese dairy companies are competing for growth in the $55.2 billion dairy market as consumers upgrade from liquid milk to premium products such as yogurt, cheese and plant-based milk. As dairy milk sales stagnates, local and foreign companies are investing in farms and concocting recipes to drive consumer interest in other dairy products.
“Chinese consumers are increasingly associating healthier products with high quality," said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Thomas Jastrzab. “Competition within the health and wellness segment will intensify over the next one to two years, as firms search for new growth engines.”
There’s plenty of room for dairy growth in China. Consumers in the country spend only $40 each on average on dairy products, compared to $168 in Japan, $56 in Taiwan and $197 in the U.S, according to Euromonitor’s 2016 data. The liquid milk market in China was 110 billion yuan in 2016, according to the research firm.
Shanghai-based Want Want is the sixth-largest dairy company in China with a market share of 2.7 percent, according to Euromonitor. It posted sales of 19.7 billion yuan last year, with about 47 percent of revenue from dairy products and beverages.
Want Want is catering to changing consumer demand, said Chen. The company’s top-selling children’s milk drink, Wangzai, has seen annual sales drop to about 10 billion yuan from 12 billion yuan at its peak, he said. So the company introduced a children’s milk drink with half the sugar content of Wangzai a few months ago. It’s also making a foray into cheese, preparing to launch a line of its best-selling biscuit snacks with a cheese coating.
Want Want faces stiff competition. Taiwan-listed Wei Chuan Foods Corp already has a best-selling oat milk drink, which consumers take as an on-the-go healthy breakfast, said Alan You Gangwei, marketing manager for its yogurt brands in an interview.
The company sells premium yogurt offerings in the same price range as foreign brands like General Mills Inc.’s Yoplait. The yogurt market, which has tripled to 100.6 billion yuan in the past seven years, has the potential to grow 10 percent to 15 percent every year for the next decade, he said.
“Penetration of yogurt is still at its beginning stage,” You said. “Unlike liquid milk, yogurt has many forms whether as a light, health drink or a thick, creamy, dessert-style product, so growth will remain strong for a long time.”