I’ve spent a bit of time outside China in Europe and the US this summer. It was all very nice, but there was a point to it. I’m trying to get a handle on just how important the Chinese consumer is becoming to the global economy – from Chinese shoppers “arbitraging” by buying luxury handbags on the Champs-Élysées and claiming the tax back at Charles de Gaulle Airport, to Chinese brands popping up across Europe. Who’s winning and who’s losing in getting the overseas renminbi? Let’s go to England…
At first glance it seems weird that Bosideng, that long famous (in China) manufacturer of puffy winter coats that make you look decidedly uncool but keep you toasty warm, is opening a store on South Molten Street, virtually opposite Selfridges. But they’re not daft – the renminbi is high and the pound is low these days, and Oxford Street is packed with Chinese shoppers. Selfridges, as well as John Lewis and other big stores along Britain’s premier retail strip, report surging Chinese tourist business with UnionPay cards almost universally accepted now. Bosideng may say they’re tapping into the European market, but everyone knows they want the Chinese shopper to start thinking of them as a top brand in Europe and buy them when they get back home.
Half of London’s trademark red buses this summer seem to have ads for Yili milk down their side. Strange when you consider that Inner Mongolia’s top dairy brand is not available for sale anywhere in the EU. No one can quite make this one out – are the ads aimed at getting publicity back home? There are videos of the London Yili buses on Youku, for example. Are they an appeal to the Chinese visitors who are in London for the Olympics, or those watching the endless shots of “typical London” on CCTV 5? Does this herald a big push by Yili into Europe? Should consumers perhaps be pouring Yili over England’s beloved Weetabix breakfast cereal (now owned by Shanghai Bright, of course)? It’s all a bit of a mystery.
Other Chinese brands are trying out the same strategy. London’s free listings magazine ShortList (which almost every Chinese visitor to the capital probably picked up) has a full-page ad for Kweichow Moutai. There’s no indication of where to buy it in the UK – the ad, in both English and Chinese, is really there to convince Chinese tourists that Kweichow is appreciated globally rather than offering a new tipple for English lager louts or binge drinkers (not that it wouldn’t work a treat for both traditional evenings out).
This is not a wholly new trick of course – Everton Football Club was sponsored by Kejian phones for two years back in 2002. Nobody in England could buy a Kejian handset, but the numbers back home watching Premiership footie and seeing the logo seemed worth it for the company. Though perhaps this was not a wholly successfully tactic – Kejian later went bankrupt!
The train from Marylebone Station to Bicester North probably carries more Chinese than any other train in England because it goes direct (well, there’s a courtesy bus at the end) from central London to the Bicester Outlet Shopping Village, Europe’s largest discount luxury centre – 130 luxury brands at up to 60% off. Increasingly the visitors are Chinese. And they’re welcome – on average they spend between US$1,500-3,000 per trip on discount luxury.
The number one question these Chinese visitors ask? “Where’s McDonald’s?” Welcome to the world of the traveling Chinese luxury shopper – 3K on brands, 3 bucks on food! Now the owners of the Bicester Village, the UK’s Value Retail, are coming to Suzhou to construct a discount brand village just a stone’s throw from Shanghai. No word on whether there’ll be a McDonald’s yet.
With all these Chinese traveling the globe to buy luxury goods, the mobile phone roaming bills could get a bit huge. The answer? WeChat, this summer’s technology phenomenon developed by Shenzhen’s own Tencent and being used by every Chinese tourist in Europe constantly. It’s an old-school but super money saving app that allows you to record and send voice messages over the web, creating a sort of disjointed, but crucially free, phone service. Fantastic – now the Chinese can funnel their phone bill savings to yet more discount luxury products and save Europe’s retail economy in the process. Everyone’s a winner!