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Bright Prospects For China’s Cold Chain Logistics Sector

China’s cold chain logistics market has been growing steadily over the past several years. According to management consulting firm L.E.K. Consulting, China’s cold chain market grew from RMB 81 billion in 2011 to RMB 181 billion in 2015 representing a growth rate of over 20% annually.

Column chart showing China's cold chain logistics market size (in RMB billions). China's cold chain logistics market was valued at RMB 81 billion in 2011, RMB 109 billion in 2013, RMB 181 billion in 2015, RMB 236 billion in 2017 (forecast), RMB 368 billion in 2019 (forecast), RMB 470 billion in 2020 (forecast).

Yet, there is still ample potential for growth. China’s cold chain logistics network currently represents a relatively small part of the overall logistics industry, with just about 19% of the Chinese market having access to cold chain technologies, compared to 85% in Europe and Japan. This explains why the cargo damage to fresh product (such as fruits and vegetables which accounts for the greatest demand for cold chain logistics services) within China’s cold chain is reportedly as high as 20% to 30% – which is considerably higher than the average 5% to 10% in developed countries.

Furthermore, the market for cold chain logistics is expected to be driven by consumption upgrades (for instance with regards to consumer expectations on product freshness and quality), and growing demand for agricultural commodities such as fresh fruits and vegetables, as a result of rising incomes and living standards.

Considering these growth drivers, market research firm Reportlinker, projects China’s cold chain logistics market to reach RMB 522.5 billion in 2025 from RMB 295.6 billion in 2018 representing a CAGR of 8.5% between 2018 and 2025.

Fundamental growth drivers: rising fresh produce demand along with increasing quality and freshness expectations as living standards rise, driven by rising incomes, and an expanding fresh food e-commerce sector

Demand for cold chain logistics stems largely from five agricultural products including meat, aquatic products, quick-frozen foods, fruits and vegetables, and dairy products, among which cold chain for fruits and vegetables accounts for the greatest demand. With incomes growing and its middle class expanding, demand for such agricultural products are enjoying robust demand in China.

According to data from the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Foodstuffs, Native Produce, and Animal By Products, in 2019 China imported approximately 6.83 million tons of fruit with a total value of US$ 9.5 billion, representing a year-on-year increase of 24% 25% respectively.
With China’s fruit exports amounting to 3.61 million tons at a value of US$ 5.5 billion in 2019, up just 4% and 14% year on year respectively, China is a net fruit importer and is likely to remain so, as per capita fruit consumption grows while economic policy focuses on high-tech industries and high-value manufacturing sectors.
Data released by the National Bureau of Statistics show that per capita consumption of fresh fruits among urban residents was 56.423 kilograms in 2018, up from 47.6 kilograms 2013. With per capita fruit consumption growing steadily, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences projects China’s fruit market will reach US$ 460 billion in 2024.

China’s growing interest in milk and dairy products is also poised to contribute to demand for cold chain logistics. China today is the second largest dairy market behind the United States, the third largest milk producer in the world, with about 13 million dairy cows up from just 120,000 cows in 1949.  The average dairy product consumption per capita has increased from almost just 6 kilograms in 1999 to 36 kilograms in 2019. Yet, there is plenty of potential with China’s per capita consumption of dairy products being half of the rest of Asia and less than one third of the world average according to Milk Quotient report published by the China Dairy Industry Association and Dutch dairy producer Royal Friesland Campina last month in Beijing.

China’s burgeoning fresh food e-commerce sector is expected to drive some of the demand for these products. China fresh food e-commerce industry has been growing steadily over the past few years; according to Euromonitor and Qianzhan Industry Research Institute, in 2019, China’s fresh food e-commerce market was valued at around RMB 288.8 billion up 19.1% 2018 when the market was valued at RMB 242.4 billion in 2018. Yet, with fresh food e-commerce accounting for just 5.6% of the total fresh food industry market in China in 2019, there is tremendous potential for growth.

Column chart showing China's fresh food e-commerce market size, growth, and proportion of total fresh food market size. China's fresh food market was valued at RMB 43.6 trillion in 2015, RMB 47.3 billion in 2016, RMB 47.4 billion in 2017, RMB 49.5 billion in 2018, and RMB 51 billion in 2019. China's fresh food ecommerce market was valued at RMB 828 million 2015, RMB 1.324 billion in 2016, RMB 1.752 billion in 2017 RMB 2.424 billion in 2018, and RMB 2.888 billion in 2019. China's fresh food ecommerce market's sure of the country's overall fresh food market stood at 1.9% in 2015, 2.8% in 2016, 3.7% in 2017, 4.9% in 2018, and 5.66% in 2019. China's fresh food ecommerce market growth rate was 80.7% in 2015, 59.9% in 2016, 32.3% in 2017, 38.4% in 2018, and 19.1% in 2019. Data from Cushman and Wakefield.

However, the bigger growth driver is from fresh food e-commerce’s need for cold storage warehouses closer to the consumer to enable cheap and fast delivery as opposed to the conventional notion that warehouses and distribution centers should be near ports and airports. Much of China’s cold storage warehouse stock is located in provinces with some of the world’s busiest ports. For instance, Liaoning which has the biggest warehouse stock by area in China is home to the Port of Dalian (the world’s 16th busiest port), Guangdong which has the 5th largest logistics warehouse stock is home to the Port of Guangzhou (the world’s 5th busiest port), and Shanghai which has the 11th biggest logistics warehouse stock in China is home to the Port of Shanghai (the world’s busiest port).

Bar chart showing China's cold storage logistics warehouse distribution by storage area (in square metres). The Province with the highest cold storage logistics warehouse by storage space area is Liaoning with 1.065 million square metres, followed by Henan with 1.059 million square metres, Sichuan with 684.9 thousand square metres, Jiangsu with 567.5 thousand square metres, Guangdong with 399.2 thousand square metres, Shandong with 387.3 thousand square metres, Shaanxi with 373 thousand square metres, Tianjin with 363.5 thousand square metres, Beijing with 282.9 thousand square metres, Hubei with 258.5 thousand square metres, Shanghai with 235 thousand square metres, Heilongjiang with 150 thousand square metres, Hebei with 132 thousand square metres, Hainan with 81.7 thousand square metres, Zhejiang with 80 thousand square metres, Hunan with 75 thousand square metres, Chongqing with 72,600 square metres, Fujian with 58,680 square metres, Guangxi with 49,850 square metres, Anhui with 49,218 square metres, Jiangxi with 40,000 square metres, Yunan with 36,000 square metres, Shanxi with 25,300 square metres, Guizhou with 12,000 square metres.

Opportunities in China’s fragmented cold storage warehouse market

Cold storage is a major part of the cold chain logistics industry; according to projections from L.E.K. Consulting, transportation, cold storage, and other services are expected to make up 40%, 30%, and 30% of China’s cold chain logistics market, respectively in 2020.

Currently cold chain storage represents a small part of China’s logistics warehouse stock; according to Warehouse In Cloud (WIC), China’s total cold storage logistics warehouse stock was about 6.65 million square meters in 2019, accounting for just 2.15% of the total logistics warehouse market. Along with the development of China’s cold chain industry, the market for refrigerated warehousing is poised to experienced solid growth.

China’s cold storage market is fragmented with the top 10 cold storage operators commanding a market share of around 21%. One of the country’s largest property developers China Vanke (HKG:2202), is a notable player in China’s cold storage space. The company purchased Swire Cold Chain Logistics from Swire Pacific (HKG:0019) in 2018, propelling Vanke into the ranks of China’s 10 largest temperature controlled-storage providers.

Under its logistics and warehousing Service Platform ” VX Logistic Properties”, has been aggressively acquiring and building its portfolio of high-standard warehouses, cold storage warehouses, as well as cold storage integrated logistics parks. In 2019, China Vanke served more than 850 customers, covering e-commerce, manufacturing, catering, retailing, etc. According to their 2019 financial results, the annual utilization rate of their cold storage warehouses stood at around 82% in 2019. China Vanke is also one of the consortium of investors that participated in the buyout of GLP, cheap the world’s leading logistics solution provider.

Another player worth watching is Alibaba (NYSE:BABA) whose logistics subsidiary Cainiao has been actively building distribution centers equipped with cold storage and delivery facilities to offer B2C cold chain logistics services, which are expected to grow along with the country’s growing fresh food e-commerce sector.
Alibaba’s cross-border ecommerce platform TMall Global offers end-to-end cold chain logistics services including warehousing, processing, packaging, and transportation enabling merchants from around the world sell fresh foods to Chinese buyers. Once in China, the goods are stored in TMall Global’s warehouses and are delivered to consumers within 24 hours.
Alibaba’s marketplace TMall Global has introduced a cold storage logistics option to enable foreign merchants to sell fresh food to Chinese buyers. The service supports refrigeration across warehousing, processing, packaging, and transportation. It also offers customs clearance online. Once the goods have reached China they can be delivered within 24 hours. Cainiao Logistics offers the full chain of services, from cargo storage in bonded warehouses, to packaging and last mile delivery.