The Chinese hunt for luxury brand bargains is a global search. I crossed paths with a group of senior Chinese bankers just before Christmas in snowy Copenhagen. We all skipped the afternoon sessions at a boring conference and braved the sub-zero temperatures for a stroll around one of northern Europe’s most delightful cities. I say “stroll,” and indeed I did – round the Tivoli Gardens, up the stunning Round Tower and then snuggled up in a cosy bar. Not so the bargain-hungry Chinese bankers, who marched straight off to the Strøget shopping district to give their mainland plastic a serious workout with Denmark’s top brands, notably design house Georg Jensen and comfy shoe specialist Ecco. We had time to go see the Little Mermaid, but nobody bothered as she’d just been in Shanghai for the Expo.
I’ve long bemoaned the lack of mid-range cosmetics in China. The market is clearly deformed when secretaries on US$6,000 a year are buying Shiseido (4911.TYO) and Kanebo (Kao Corp, 4452.TYO) face cream. But the alternatives (favored by secretaries everywhere else) are either risky in China (overly toxic low-end face creams are a “pay your money, take your chance” purchase) or not established here. There are few outlets for foreign mid-range cosmetics retailers like The Face Shop, Lush and The Body Shop (L’Oréal; OR.Euronext). With a growing middle class it’s time for a growing mid-range in many retail sectors, not least cosmetics.
Of course a stumbling block for many Western cosmetic brands is the lack of whitener in the product – deemed an essential ingredient by many Chinese women but a tad politically incorrect in Europe and America. Interesting that L’Occitane (0973.HK) has started using terms like “brightening” on their products – not explicitly whitening, but the consumer gets the message. L’Occitane is not alone here – American brand Kiehl’s (L’Oréal) only took off in Asia when it launched the “white” collection. Right or wrong, politically correct or incorrect, it seems the desire to whiten among Chinese women is here to stay as long as the customer gets to choose.
I had reason to wish I’d paid more attention in chemistry class recently. The boss of China’s top dry cleaning store chain (the mighty Elephant King) spent quite a bit of his valuable day explaining to me the differences in the chemical requirements of his 600 stores across the country. Apparently he needs special chemicals in Sichuan province as the love of spicy hotpot leads to a lot of yellow stains. Likewise the Shanghainese need oil stains removed from their clothes thanks to their love of excessively oily food. He also showed me a chart of China indicating the relative hardness and softness of the water in any given county. This apparently affects the amount of starch and softener required. I’d never realized there was so much to dry cleaning beyond dropping it off and picking it up!
Beijing’s boutique hotel market is starting to look like a tin of Alphabetti Spaghetti these days. On recent trips to the capital I’ve stayed in Hotel G, Hotel W and then (and do avoid at all costs) the rather sub-standard Hotel N. I’ve already noted the existence of the A.Hotel by the Worker’s Stadium and I’ve heard there’s a Hotel B over near Qianmen somewhere but have yet to try it. The jokes of course write themselves – do avoid the long check-in lines at Hotel Q but don’t forget to admire the excellent bathrooms in Hotel P.