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It's not just Alibaba—the Chinese consumer is going public

Alibaba, the world's largest e-commerce company, has known all along what many outside China are just now coming to realize. That Chinese consumers are the largest, fastest growing and most world-altering demographic since the post-War American consumers.

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Brent Lewin | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The "American Century" was, in part, fueled and built by America's exploding middle class and the consumption of the goods and services that made for a middle class life. Chinese consumption has become just as important to the world economy as their American cousins and this growth has occurred in three phases.

The period from 1992-2000 saw the birth of Chinese consumption. After 80 years of war, revolution and a production based, closed market, the business people and entrepreneurs who kick started China's market economy started buying what they wanted, not just what they needed in accordance with the State. But their numbers were limited.

From 2001-2010, China developed a rapidly growing and varied consumer economy and the "Gold Rush" for foreign companies to enter and sell in China was in full swing.

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Since 2010, China has seen the explosion of the middle class (currently about 350 million strong) and the ranks of the wealthy and super wealthy have grown apace. China now has more than 2 million millionaires and ranks second only to the U.S. in the number of billionaires, not to mention the second largest economy in the world (expected to pass the U.S. in less than a decade). In accordance with newfound and more importantly, wide-spread disposable income and the government's goal of moving a significant portion of GDP away from manufacturing and export to consumption and service the age of "China's Super Consumers" is upon us.

Like their 20th century predecessors in America, Chinese consumers are changing their own culture, society and economy and are impacting the way the rest of the world does business and in some cases the way countries conduct their foreign policy.

Additionally, the last few years have seen the birth of the "China Global Consumer." China is no longer just a market but a global demographic. This is illustrated by the fact that Chinese consumers make 30 percent of all luxury purchases globally but make 60 percent of those purchases outside China.

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Chinese globals are investing in foreign real estate, educating their kids (at sticker price) at foreign universities and are travelling in astounding numbers. One hundred million Chinese traveled this year and spent a world leading $7,500 per person per trip.

Currently nearly 400 million Chinese engage in e-commerce consumption and that number could rise to 600 million in a few years. China also has 1 billion mobile handsets in use and those handsets are fast becoming the number one tool for commerce.

Alibaba is a big story and is likely to be one of, if not the biggest, IPOs in history but it is really the Chinese consumer who is going public. Brands, retailers and service companies around the world are benefitting from this new paradigm but many more need to adjust or start their engagement with Chinese consumers. You cannot truly be a global company today without having Chinese consumers at the top of your priority list and a strategy for engaging them for the next twenty years.

Commentary by Michael Zakkour, a principle and China practice leader at the global consulting firm, Tompkins International. He is co-author, with Savio Chan, of the new Wiley book "China's Super Consumers." Follow him on Twitter @michaelzakkour.