In January, Qingdao – lauded as "China’s Riviera" by 1930s property developers – becomes rather cold, but an estimated 50,000 shoppers turned out for the opening of Tesco’s new mall development in the city. The project is ambitious for a foreign retailer: a whole mall operated by Tesco, incorporating flats, offices, cinemas and a host of shops alongside, of course, a giant hypermarket. It’s a smart idea – retail tenants are plentiful while tier-two cities like Qingdao need better office space. Still, it’s amazing (although I should be used to it by now) that crowds will turn up to the opening of a grocery store. It would take a royal death or a presidential inauguration to get so many people out on the streets anywhere else!
From the biggest to the smallest – convenience stores are a tough sector in China. Most don’t make much, if any, money, with the average monthly net profit per store coming in at a paltry US$22 in Shanghai. Yet more keep opening. Japan’s FamilyMart has about 16,000 stores in Asia and the company plans to open 130 new outlets in China this year, including in Shanghai. Let’s not forget that Shanghai has nearly 6,000 convenience stores pretty much all selling the same thing 24 hours a day, often opposite or next door to each other. Look up "saturation" in the dictionary and there’s probably a picture of a convenience store in Shanghai.
It looks like one Expo benefit to Shanghai will be licensed night markets. The city currently has no (licensed) night markets, though they’re massively popular elsewhere. I regularly visit Taipei’s Shilin night market, which is packed with tasty snacks and hungry families; Singapore’s night markets, or pasar malams, similarly so. It’s a safe bet that the establishments will be a hit on their return to Shanghai – just look at the success of Beijing’s reinstated Lunar New Year temple fairs in the last few years. However, here’s hoping they’ll be true to tradition and full of independent vendors selling tasty snacks at affordable prices and not simply a street with a McDonald’s at one end, a KFC at the other and a bunch of antiseptic fast-food joints in between. Night markets are as much about the variety, bustle and the crowds as the food.
I like Decathlon – well run stores with cheap, good quality gear – and it seems Chinese people do, too. I read and hear a lot about Nike vs. Adidas and Li Ning vs. Anta but on the streets I see a lot of Decathlon’s own brands, such as Quechua backpacks. People like the company’s outdoor gear and backpacks, but they stick with the big brands for shoes. Problem solved. I recently visited Decathlon’s new Tianjin store – 4,000 square meters and stocking 65 kinds of sports products, including tennis rackets, roller skates, golf clubs, equestrian and scuba diving kit. The manager told me that 80% of the products sold are own-branded, but they now also offer well-known labels like Adidas and Nike. A win-win for both the big brands and Decathlon. As well as the store, the outlet includes a skating rink and a small golf range to keep the punters amused.
A quick visit to a snowy and very icy Dalian reveals one reason why new car sales keep humming along in China. The roadsides were literally piled up with smashed up cars that had collided in the bad weather. A friendly policeman gave me the answer to the auto-carnage: inexperienced drivers refusing to slow down despite the weather, and Dalian not gritting any of its roads. Many of these cars will have to be replaced, which should keep local production lines busy.