Among the many anomalies of the Chinese retail market is that once again soaring property prices are not translating into a massive spike in sales for the big homeware chains. It takes 8-10 months for people to find a property, agree on a price, sort out a mortgage, complete paperwork and then move in. What do new homeowners do next? Go shopping, of course. Not so much in China – or so it may seem. Ikea’s expansion is painfully slow here, B&Q recently announced that it may make a profit in 2011, and even local operator Orient Home appears to be struggling. It seems that the vast swathe of competition – from small "mom and pop" stores selling homewares, to wholesalers on the edge of town – are overwhelming the chains still. As ever, China is providing a counterintuitive lesson for retailers.
Push-ups are back! Bras I mean, rather than army-style exercises. The push-up bra brands never quite found the market they were expecting in China when they launched in the 1990s – those that wanted more breast could often afford surgical enhancement while the fashion was more for skinny chic than lusty and busty. But across Asia the push-up is undergoing a resurgence – Taiwan TV, for instance, is full of celebrity-endorsed push-up bras. And now increasingly the mainland, too: Both the global push-up purveyors such as Triumph International and a host of local entrants now appear on TV and on screens in the back of taxi cabs. This will be the summer of structured cleavage in China!
I’ve jut finished a rather large study of the corporate responsibility (CR) sector in China. In the past this survey has involved looking at what foreign firms are doing, evaluating whether their projects are any good and then checking whether or not they are being copied (and in this case copying is usually a good thing) by Chinese companies. However, I have to report that the CR landscape in China at the moment is a bit depressing. Now it seems that most foreign firms are doing what Chinese firms have long done – ditching long-term and capacity-building projects for simple corporate philanthropy. Admittedly, not so many foreign non-governmental organizations are looking at factory conditions in China while the recession in the West means jobs are under threat back home. But still it is rather depressing how fast so many initiatives have slipped away, to be replaced by firms simply cutting checks to government-backed charities and filing that in their CR reports.
I am not normally excited by taxi developments, but the new Volkswagen (VOW.FWB) Touran and Buick Lacrosse taxis on the streets of Shanghai for the Expo have piqued my interest. There’s 4,000 of them and they’re more fuel efficient than the old Santanas, can take more luggage and, yes – at last – have rear seatbelts! Not so good perhaps for all those proud new car owners who recently bought Tourans and Lacrosses and now find themselves driving the same model as Shanghai cabbies.
For a few decades now Shanghai’s Yu Gardens have been a major stop on the Chinese out-of-towners’ whirlwind tour of the city. They’re crowded, hectic and the surrounding area is full of shops selling tat, tat and more tat. However, now it appears the venue is to go upmarket, with a mall planned featuring the new usual suspects: Zara and H&M (HM.OMX) – as well as, rumor has it, Shanghai’s second Marks & Spencer (MKS.LSE). Nowhere in Shanghai, it seems, is immune from the push "up market" these days.