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Prime Single Ladies

A Bright Spot in a Dull Economy


Independent living, autonomous spending, not following the crowd – Taiwan's 530,000 single women around the age of 40 are a hot new consumer block willing to yield to the urge to splurge.



A Bright Spot in a Dull Economy

By Ming-Ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 423 )

Taipei's Sherwood Hotel offers a champagne brunch featuring a NT$3-4000 bottle of bubbly and an additional 1000 per plate. Between 60 and 70 percent of the customers availing themselves of the special offer are single women between the ages of 35 and 44.

At a median age of 40, single women aged 35 to 44 are a new goldmine for retailers in Taiwan and Japan.

In 2008, the term arafo gained strong currency in Japan, as did the status of the generation of women it describes. A shortened form of "around forty," it refers to women a few years on one side or the other of that marker of time spent on earth. This particular generation possesses frightening consumer power, leading companies to introduce travel packages specifically targeting them, even going after their cash with high-end cosmetics costing 126,000 Japanese yen (around NT$42,500).

CNN also recently ran a story titled "Single and Happy" discussing the unusual consumer culture and values of these mature single ladies.

Likewise, the consumer potential of these prime singles has grabbed attention in Taiwan, especially during this time of economic woes.

Super Consumers

CommonWealth Magazine and Yahoo! Taiwan News recently conducted a joint survey of unmarried women ages 35 to 44, the first of its kind to target these single girls in their prime. Among respondents, 45.7 percent agreed with the statement, "Spending money to pamper myself is not at all out of the question." This represented a nearly five-percent higher acceptance of the values engendered in the statement than among a cohort of married women in the same age range. (Table 1)

"This group is relatively unaffected by the economic climate," observes James C.M. Chao, general manager of China Times Travel Services. Despite accounting for just 20 percent of the travel market, they are one of the only segments to have grown over the last two to three years, at a rate of 15 percent each year.

And because constant price wars in the group travel market have made for slim margins, this segment is "well worth cultivating," Chao insists, even though the in-depth and semi-custom travel itineraries these ladies care most about only run a modest 5 to 10 percent higher than the usual going rates.

The CommonWealth-Yahoo! survey also found that among women ages 25 to 44, females in the 35-44 age group accounted for the highest proportion of those having taken 10 or more vacations in Taiwan or abroad with friends and/or relatives, or eight or more trips in Taiwan or abroad unaccompanied over the past three years. (Table 2) The same cohort of women also claimed the highest proportion of people enjoying fine cuisine each month. (Table 3)

Boutique items also bear marks of the spending singles' consumption power. Chang Cheng-hsun, vice president of Longines Taiwan, relates that the 35 to 44 age group claims 40 percent of women's sales of that brand of Swiss watches in Taiwan, half of which come from single ladies.

Like Japan, magazines targeted at arafo have also emerged in Taiwan. Founded in 2007, Camelia is positioned as "the first general interest fashion lifestyle magazine especially for women around forty."

The prime single ladies segment also stands out among the various demographic groups. According to statistics from the Ministry of the Interior, nearly 30 percent of Taiwanese women in the 35 to 44 age group, approximately 530,000 of them, are single. (Table 4) The consumption power of 530,000 people is nothing to sneeze at.

Spending for "Me"

At China Times Travel Services, an agency largely dedicated to in-depth travel experiences, a full 80 percent of FIT & Package Travel Department director Bianca Lai's customers belong to the single females aged 35-44 demographic.

You Li-yu, a product manager for Guerlain cosmetics, will be 35 this coming October. Around half of what she makes is disposable income. In contrast to when she first went out into the world and only one-tenth of her income was available for discretionary spending, she has a great deal more choice in her spending these days.

"It's a great time for me, without any family burdens," she offers. Women her age that are married with children often have to consider their husband's views and their children's education costs. But for her, "all you have to do is think about yourself when it comes to spending money," she enthuses.

This group of prime single ladies is especially well equipped among women to indulge their personal interests.

British expatriate Liza Milne, 35, is one of the few female high-capacity motorcycle enthusiasts in Taiwan. Back when she first came to Taiwan 15 years ago, she earned an unstable income from English-language tutoring. Fond of having a good time, she was nonetheless unable to focus spending on her interests and had no savings to show for her efforts as recently as five years ago. These days, however, she is pulling in NT$60-70,000 per month, nearly twice what she made back then, and can afford a NT$470,000 motorcycle and all the gear to go with it. A dog lover and executive officer of Animals Taiwan Animal Lover Association, she can afford to rent a 40-ping home with a yard for over NT$30,000 per month to take care of her six dogs and two cats.

Women with a New Lease on Life

With stable incomes, this group has the freedom, time and energy to think about other things in life.

Connie Lo, the 36 year-old vice president of Franklin Templeton Securities Investment Consulting (SinoAm), reflects on her last decade in the industry. Checking Asian stocks in the morning, and European and American markets throughout the day and evening, she worked 12 hours a day and never got more than 10 days off a year. "I had to establish credibility in the workplace" in order to feel secure enough to think about anything else, she admits.

Recently she has balanced things out, getting away from work when appropriate and both broadening and balancing her life compared to before.

Bianca Lai, 40, keeps a travel map in her mind, and she's eager to experience any place she can get to with a visa and a passport. The past few years she has allotted around NT$200,000 of her money per year for travel.

Before she was 35 she could barely take any holidays of any decent length, she relates, and under economic constraints she often took brief holiday excursions. Now, however, she is more into seeing and experiencing different cultures for herself.

"The world is so big. As long as I have the physical stamina, I want to see all those far-away places and places with culture," she states.

The prime single ladies are looking for depth and breadth of knowledge and experience, and are far better equipped than their married counterparts to pursue these things.

"For men, 40 is their second adolescence; for women, it's the start of their second life," offers May Wu, research director for Ogilvy & Mather (Taiwan) Strategic Planning and Research. Forty year-old men often bear a lot of responsibility and, reluctant to seek outside help, they can become rebellious. On the other hand, as women mature and attain greater economic, emotional, and directional stability, they are more sure about what they want.

The Ladies Know What They Want

Having gone beyond the stage of "pursuing outside validation," certitude about their wants and a refusal to follow blindly is reflected in their consumption habits.

Sandy Tu, research director of TargetLink Marketing Research & Consulting, observes that this group of women has plenty of work experience, and since they are single they are forced to learn things or train themselves to independently resolve all sorts of issues in life. This gives them an additional measure of autonomy.

"Consumer behavior of women 20 to 30 years old is more influenced by the mainstream media saying ‘this or that is good.' But women around 40 aren't looking just to show what they can have; rather it's more about exercising choice," she offers.

They put more emphasis on substance than logos, and they care more about the philosophy and intrinsic values of products than image and brand recognition.

When they're not spending money to pamper themselves, this group of unattached prime ladies doesn't hesitate to spend on their families.

Compared to younger and married women, May Wu of Ogilvy & Mather says prime single women can put more energy into taking care of parents and their siblings' children. Citing her own example as a woman nearing 40, "I spend more on my older brother's 16 month-old child than I do on myself," she says with a chuckle.

Single, Mature, in the Prime of Life

Enjoying all-around stability, they're self-sufficient and self-reliant, with plenty to go around. Working hard to shrug off traditional expectations towards women, they neither envy young women nor feel compelled to get married.

Jenny, 40, changed careers mid-course a decade ago to become a special care nurse. Most of her patients are business executives. Although she makes about the same as before, the greater flexibility of the work allows her to take long vacations.

An avid traveler, last year she spent NT$200,000 total on a trip to Canada to visit friends and to see her family back in Thailand. She also loves shopping for clothes, especially brightly colored outfits. Sometimes when she finds a certain style of clothing she really likes, she'll buy every color available. Standing before a closet blooming with colorful clothing, she smiles brightly.

"I'm so happy right now," she stressed repeatedly throughout the interview. She's happy with her job, and is able to plan her life freely. Unburdened by complicated thoughts, living a simple and stable life, she's supremely satisfied.

They stand for independent living, autonomous spending, and not going along blindly. Single ladies in the prime of life live freely for themselves.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman

Chinese Version: 黃金單身女 打敗不景氣