Why you should care
For seven days, luxury-loving Chinese shoppers come to the capital with one quest in mind: to bag the best in high-end Britishness.
Blame it on Downton Abbey and pomp and glory events like the fairytale wedding of William and Kate. The Chinese have a taste for the British high life. And they are stampeding London this week to grab some of the country’s high-end brands.
Welcome to Chinese Golden Week, introduced by the government in 2000 to help citizens raise their standard of living. But perhaps not quite the way a Communist regime envisaged it, with the newly affluent rushing to the British capital to bag Burberry trench coats, Mulberry handbags, bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue, and maybe a Savile Row suit or an Aston Martin.
But millions of Chinese have made a new tradition out of traveling, shopping as they drop, during the first week of October, when residents get time off work to celebrate the republic’s birthday. With visitor numbers to Britain doubling in the past five years, stores are eagerly awaiting them at Westfield, the shiny west London mall known for its concentration of designer boutiques showcasing the most sought-after British brands. It’s one of the first businesses to be awarded a welcome charter established this year by the national tourism authority, VisitBritain, to help U.K. companies maximize the Chinese lust for a bit of British stardust.
During Golden Week, the average Chinese shopper spends around $4,000.
A new affection for “Britishness” is driving these nouveaux riches away from luxury brand rivals elsewhere in the world, according to Qing Wang, Warwick Business School’s professor of marketing. She conducted a study of the phenomenon in China last year and found locals were enthralled by TV dramas like Downton Abbey, which big up the aristocratic lifestyle, and associate the British royal family with prestige and class.
Retailers are also hoping to capitalize on the “Paris syndrome”: disappointment experienced by Chinese visitors to the French capital in search of romance who find only rude waiters, dirty streets and pickpockets. This has prompted turned-off shoppers to switch from Louis Vuitton, Chanel and other logo-heavy French labels to British brands.
To welcome shoppers, Westfield has translated its mall guide into Mandarin and hired a Mandarin-speaking concierge and retail staff. Stores even take the China UnionPay card and offer “hands-free shopping” with valets employed to cater to this new category of VIP, including carrying their bags and delivering their purchases to hotels.
“China is our No. 1 market by spend at our west London center and No. 2 at our east London center,” says Myf Ryan, Westfield’s U.K. and Europe marketing director, commenting on a marked visitor increase of brand-conscious Chinese.
We’re talking real money. While China ranks only 30th in visitor numbers to Britain, it ranks 13th in terms of spending. During Golden Week, the average Chinese shopper spends around $4,000. No wonder VisitBritain is urging companies to emphasize their brand heritage when marketing to the Chinese, to bone up on these visitors’ unique culture and etiquette, and to establish a Web presence in China. More than 180 companies have signed up to the charter ahead of this year’s gold rush, and VisitBritain has set itself the target of tripling Chinese visitor numbers and attracting more than $1.7 billion by 2020.
But for this week at least, retailers are basking in a glow as golden as Kate’s wedding carriage. And Londoners are happy enough, just so long as they can avoid being trampled on Bond Street and Piccadilly by brand-hungry shoppers.