Hong Kong-native Thomas Woo is one of the founders of gourmet lifestyle specialty store city’super. Woo began his career in retail in Tokyo’s Seibu department store and from there returned home to work with Hong Kong Seibu. He helped start city’super in Hong Kong 14 years ago; Woo was appointed president in 2002. The chain opened its first store in Shanghai last month. He spoke to CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW about why the chain picked Shanghai as its first step onto the mainland, and buying a better toothbrush.
Q: What is the difference between city’super and an ordinary grocery store?
A: We describe ourselves as a lifestyle specialty store. Of course we are a retailer, but we have three major components. One is the international food markets, in which we bring in the best gourmet food and wine from around the word. The second part is F&B, which means catering, food service, restaurants. We also have a capability in food production. In Shanghai, we have a French-style restaurant inside the store. The third part is what we call lifestyle products, which we call the Life division. This is non-foods – personal care, kitchenware, stationery, gifts, daily necessities – but all high quality. If you want to pamper yourself with a better toothbrush, for example, you can buy it here. That makes us quite different from other supermarkets. Our customers don’t come to us for basic grocery needs, they come to enjoy the shopping experience.
Q: What do you mean by "shopping experience?"
A: Actually, in our store, because we are bringing in products from all over the world, looking at all these different foods is kind of a discovery journey. You might not know what it is, but you want to try it. Every time you come here you find something new. Another part is, you can actually have cooked food to take away, or you can sit down in a casual and comfortable environment to eat it. And all our food is made from our own products, safe and healthy. We also have a "culture club," which is a space where we have chefs inside to teach you how to make different recipes from different cuisines using our ingredients. In our store, every day we host different sessions to share different cooking methods. That is very entertaining and educational.
Q: Why Shanghai and why now?
A: We started in Hong Kong, but over the past 10 years, numerous projects in China have come to us and asked us to take a look, including projects in Shanghai. We have been regularly looking at different locations in China, looking at what people want, how they live. We realized back in 2007 that while Shanghai is changing every three months, it is shaping itself into a truly cosmopolitan city again. It used to be the New York of Asia, and in the last five years this has accelerated very quickly. You can see people from all different walks of life, people from all over the world, and the Shanghainese themselves are rapidly raising their standard of living. We think that 2010, with the Expo, is the beginning of Shanghai being a truly cosmopolitan city. It’s just the beginning – it’s not mature yet – but still. It was a similar situation when we first started in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was also experiencing very high growth. In the 1980s and early 1990s a lot of residents who had emigrated started coming back. A lot of them had raised children abroad, and were very cosmopolitan, and that drove demand for lifestyle stores like ours. We think Shanghai will experience a similar growth trend.
Q: Why did do you decide to start in Pudong and not Puxi?
A: We also intend to be in Puxi of course, but the International Finance Center complex just opened up in Pudong on April 28. We believe in this project, and that’s why we started in Pudong. But we will go to Puxi as our next step.
Q: Why did you decide against Beijing?
A: Both Shanghai and Beijing are very charming cities, and both are attractive to us. But Shanghai does have a historical background of being very receptive to foreign concepts, which is why we want to start here first. But it doesn’t mean that we won’t go to Beijing.
Q: How do you deal with the regulations on getting food into China? Do you handle your own logistics?
A: Good question. Importing food into China is not an easy task. However, it can be done. We do it mostly ourselves, and we are still learning different categories – there are so many, and they each have different requirements. It’s a learning process, but it’s a fact of life in China.
Q: Are your customers mostly Chinese or foreigners?
A: We think in the beginning it’s going to be half and half, especially since we are in Lujiazui financial district where there are a lot of foreigners around. But we think that in the future, the local customers will become the majority, according to the demographic ratio here.