by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, Jan. 31 (Xinhua) -- This year's Spring Festival will represent a strong opportunity for Italian exporters to consolidate gains in the Chinese market from two years ago while staking out new markets for high-end food-related products, analysts said.
Italian exports to China expanded dramatically between 2016 and 2017, according to data from Italy's National Statistics Institute, up by nearly a fifth to 15.2 billion euros (17.2 billion U.S. dollars), sparked by a rise in auto sales following the new introduction of cars from Fiat Chrysler's luxury Alfa-Romeo line.
But preliminary figures show that exports in 2018 gave some of those gains back last year, dropping around 2.4 percent from 2017 and 2018. The main culprit behind the drop was the same auto sector that bolstered export figures a year earlier.
The task for Italian exporters this year, analysts said, is to hold onto gains from the last two years while growing exports in sectors with high potential. And the Spring Festival will play a key role, they said.
"It is hard to for a company to find footing in a big market like China," Denis Pantini, head of the agro-industry section at Nomisma, a research and consulting entity, told Xinhua. "That's particularly true for all the small- and medium-sized companies in Italy, competing against big multinationals from other countries. An event like the Spring Festival can level the playing field a bit."
Pantini explained that big companies can hire marketing experts and consultants to help overcome barriers in complex markets. Small companies that produce important Italian exports like wine, olive oil, and cured meats benefit from having potential distributors and buyers gathered at one event.
Pantini said the Chinese market for those kinds of Italian food-related products -- especially finished products like cheese rather than base ingredients such as milk -- is an area primed for growth.
"Chinese consumers are more in-tune with foreign products and for Italy the market remains largely untapped," he said, adding "To put it into perspective, Italy sold 520 million dollars in food products to China last year. Brazil exported 28 billion dollars worth."
Alessandro Terzulli, chief economist with Sace, Italy's main export agency, said other sectors such as fashion and design, are potential growth areas.
"The Chinese market is getting more and more complex and its consumers more demanding," Terzulli said in an interview. "For most exporters, participating in an event like the Spring Festival will not do much on its own. But it's a key part of a wider strategy that can yield dividends."
Terzulli noted that Italian clothing and accessory exports to China grew by nearly 20 percent between January and November of last year compared to the same period in 2017. Pharmaceutical exports grew by 45 percent over the same period while high-tech products rose by 14 percent.
"Italy will concentrate its efforts on the sectors where it has found success so far," he said.
The 2019 Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese Lunar New Year, gets underway starting on Feb. 5. It is the most important festival in China with a week-long holiday.