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Tech a shortcut to Asia's growing buying power

Middle-income population with money to spend set to grow fivefold

From right, Pipope Chokwatana, adviser to Saha Pathanapibul; Kalin Sarasin, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce; and Wang Yu, chairman of Spring Airlines. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

BANGKOK As Asia's middle class continues to grow, companies must leverage technology to keep pace with changing customer behavior, business leaders told participants at the forum.

"Once the middle-income class people have more money, they want to spend on their lifestyle and ... products like traveling abroad," said Kalin Sarasin, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce and Board of Trade of Thailand.

The Asia-Pacific region's middle-class population is set to increase five-fold by 2030 from 2009, he said, becoming the largest in the world. Consumer spending is projected to grow 571% over the same period.

Thailand is already enjoying record numbers of tourists, with 2016 seeing 32 million international arrivals, up nearly 9% on the year. The most numerous visitors were Asians, with Chinese topping the list.

To capitalize on this trend, Spring Airlines, China's largest budget carrier, is stepping up its information technology investment, Chairman Wang Yu said.

"We are now an IT company," he said. "There is no limitation in hiring in the IT department, unlike other departments in the company."

Bucking the industry trend, Spring has only a small presence on travel websites, with 85% of its bookings coming through its own mobile site.

Wang said this approach is essential for collecting the detailed data needed to understand customer behavior. "If we don't have the data, we will become further away from our customers," he said.

For example, the behavior of Chinese passengers differs by location, Wang said. "People from certain provinces prefer to travel in early hours, while there are others that like to travel midday."

Pipope Chokwatana, adviser to Thai consumer goods conglomerate Saha Pathanapibul, agreed that consumer behaviors are changing.

"One of the features of the middle class is small-sized families, with spending behavior that values the kids' needs," he said. This, he said, will create more sophisticated consumers, as children "will be able to know what they want and express themselves more."

Pipope said consumer buying power in Thailand has been low in recent years, due largely to high household debt, which now equals more than 70% of Thailand's gross domestic product.

But he predicted that spending will pick up in two to five years as Thais repay their debts, particularly auto loans taken out when the government offered tax incentives for first-time car buyers a few years ago.

"They already bought something big and made debts," Pipope said. "But once this issue is solved and buying power is back, people are likely to buy what they like, not only what they need."

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