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This commentary originally appeared in Forbes

Ignore them at your own risk.

Retail sales grew 0.6% in the U.S. in June. That beat expectations, but it shows how the American consumer is continuing to cut back on spending, shopping and dining out. Meanwhile China's economy remains robust, with gross domestic product growing 7.9% in the second quarter, making it a must-win market for even the largest businesses, like the restaurant company Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM), which generates a third of its revenue in China. General Motors (GMGMQ.PK) has enjoyed a 43% increase in sales through July this year in China, year over year--even as it has gone through bankruptcy in the U.S.

Traditionally companies double-down during recessions and focus on their core target markets. This is no longer enough; they need to look for growth in developing markets like India and China, whose economies have remained buoyant. They should look especially to the women of China.

That one consumer segment has defied the analysts and kept on spending like it's 2007. China's overall retail sales rose 15% in the first half of this year, and that growth was driven in large part by women under the age of 35, buoyed by China's $586 billion stimulus package and a stock market that has risen around 80% since January. My firm, the China Market Research Group, recently surveyed female consumers in China, and 80% of them said they expected to spend more in the next six months than in the last six.

Women have become a major driving force behind China's economic growth--yet they remain little understood in the West as an influence on household budgets. Not only are they exerting influence on decision-making in their own homes; they're also making purchase decisions for their parents when they live in the same house or neighborhood.

Many Americans harbor images of Chinese women shaped by movies like The Last Emperor, where they've tended to be docile concubines with bound feet. Zhang Yimou, the Stephen Spielberg of China, has made films depicting the plight of women in ancient China as virtual slaves. It's not like that anymore.

Chairman Mao famously said, "Women hold up half of the sky." Millions of girls since the late 1970s have been raised as little princesses in one-child families. While much has been made of the statistic that there are 117 males for every 100 females in China (because of abortions), it's also true that in urban areas there is much gender parity. Even in the rural areas the situation is quickly evolving, as the spread of urbanization means less need for hands for farming.

Women now contribute about half of household income, up from 20% in the 1950s. Their educational opportunities have greatly grown, and they've entered the white-collar workforce. At my own strategy consulting firm, women outnumber men three to one. They now spend as much as men on luxury consumption, accounting for 50% of luxury purchases from companies like Louis Vuitton and Gucci. A woman, former Vice Premier Wu Yi, ranked by Forbes as the second most powerful woman in the world in 2007, was former Treasury Secretary's Henry Paulson's counterparty during America and China's strategic economic dialogue talks that year.

While their peers in the U.S. have cut back on spending in the recession, Chinese women are spending more than ever before, but they have also shifted their habits to become less frivolous and impulsive. Understanding how they think and what they buy will be critical for foreign firms trying to sell to them.

A Chinese woman might typically spend $100 in a shopping outing, as before, but now she'll buy not 10 items but six more expensive ones. She'll look for products like a handbag she can use daily instead of a shirt to wear once a month. She wants cosmetics that last longer. She is cutting back on impulse purchases, spending more time before entering a store to do research online on what she wants to buy, consulting blogs and search engines and web sites like Sina (NASDAQ:SINA) and Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU).

Companies that want to tap into Chinese women's optimism need to recognize this trend toward value. Women are becoming less price sensitive and more sophisticated about the brands and products that they finally buy. Companies can no longer rely solely on price and discounts to sell to women. They need to connect emotionally and forge a strong brand position.

Women are also extremely influential in big-ticket family purchases such as homes and even televisions that traditionally have been up to men. Men might make the final purchase decision on a car or a TV, but our research suggests that women have equal say. The vast majority of men told us that their wives must approve all purchases that affect how the home looks or are above a certain price level. In Shanghai, we found that many women control their households' finances. They keep the bank accounts in their own names and give their husbands a weekly allowance.

Many women born under the one-child policy implemented in the late 1970s are now becoming mothers. They're also becoming the major breadwinners for their retired parents, who look to them for help with soaring housing and medical costs.

These young women are greatly concerned about the safety of the products they buy for their children. If Americans worry about the "Made in China" label, Chinese women worry even more, for they have to deal with it every day. Many choose where they shop based on whether they think they can find genuine and non-toxic products. One 32-year-old woman in Tianjin told us, "I shop at Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) because I trust that the products its sells are real and safe. To ensure safety, I am willing to spend more."

We've found many affluent women flying to Hong Kong or Korea to buy baby formula, even before last year's melamine scandals. In general they trust foreign brands more than domestic ones. As a 34-year-old woman in Zhengzhou told us, "Foreign firms are less likely to cut corners in the production and quality control process." The vast majority of females in 15 cities told us that they would spend 20% or more for products for their babies if they felt they could fully trust that they were safe. This covers everything from clothing to food products to soaps. The fear Chinese consumers have of being hurt by tainted merchandise affects every kind of purchase decision.

Chinese women are emerging as one of the most confident bodies of consumers in the world. And they have the money to keep on spending. To be successful selling to them, you have to cater to their emotions and concerns more than ever before, even when selling products that men traditionally buy. As Chinese women work harder, raise children at the same time, and pay for their parents, they want to spoil themselves and relax a little. They are willing to pay a premium for safe and healthy quality products that let them do so.

Disclosure: none.

Source: China's New Purchasing Powerhouse: Women