Over two-thirds of luxury spending by mainland Chinese was made overseas in 2013, an increase from 2012, according to the China Luxury Market Study from consultancy firm Bain & Company released on Monday.
Chinese shoppers often wait for trips abroad, plan shopping sprees to Hong Kong or get friends or specialist “daigou” agencies to bring back luxury items from overseas because they are often cheaper due to China’s high import taxes.
“Sometimes I’ll go to a China store and look online for details about things I’ve liked, or try something on for size I’ve seen online. But when it comes to actually buying it I’ll always get a friend to bring it back from abroad,” said Fang.
China is the number one luxury spender worldwide, making up 29 percent of total global luxury spend this year, according to the Bain report. So Chinese consumers – wherever they may be – are a key battleground for firms from LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA and Gucci owner Kering Holland NV to trench coat maker Burberry Group PLC , cosmetics giant L’Oreal SA and Cartier watchmaker Compagnie Financiere Richemont SA .
Chinese luxury spending slowed at home in the wake of a crackdown on corruption and shows of wealth, prompting warnings of a sales slowdown from liquor maker Pernod Ricard SA and Volkswagen-owned Bentley Motors and Lamborghini.
Luxury brand store openings dropped significantly in 2013, according to Bain, which estimated China’s luxury market will grow two percent this year versus seven percent a year earlier.
On London’s Bond Street and Fifth Avenue in New York, luxury stores have been getting ready to welcome Chinese shoppers, boosting China know-how ahead of peak seasons such as the week-long Lunar New Year beginning January 31, 2014.
London’s Harrods department store is planning a themed display for the festival, with special products and menus designed for the occasion, it said.
Chinese visitors spent 300 million pounds ($488.34 million) in Britain in 2012, while the British government has relaxed visa rules to attract more people from the world’s second-largest economy.
“Having a strategy for Chinese visitors makes a massive difference. Chinese spending in the UK was up 132 percent in the first half of 2013,” said Jeremy Gordon, London-based director of China Business Services, which helps UK firms target Chinese shoppers.
“That’s obviously going to have a massive impact on your bottom line at a time when overall retail sales are not growing at anything like that rate.”
On Fifth Avenue, jeweler Tiffany & Co said it employs Mandarin-speaking staff. Tiffany has seen strong growth in the China market as the allure of diamonds grows, and said last month that sales at its flagship New York store were driven by Chinese and European tourists.
Around 1.5 million Chinese travelers visited the United States in 2012, a more than five-fold increase from 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“Western luxury brands have now fully understood the necessity to have Mandarin speaking sales associates in their New York and London stores, but it’s not enough. The purchase decision is made well before the trip, when future Chinese travelers are checking their luxury travel magazines on their iPad and luxury lifestyle Weibo pages. The irony of this is even if the sales associates do not speak Mandarin, Chinese shoppers will still buy” said Pierre Gervois, author of “How U.S. Retail, Travel and Hospitality Industries can attract affluent Chinese tourists”
Saks Fifth Avenue, the department store unit of Hudson’s Bay Co , has a Lunar New Year strategy to focus on beauty products, while the flagship store of Macy’s Inc has a visitor centre with Chinese-language material.
Barneys, meanwhile, is launching its first Lunar New Year-themed marketing campaign in 2014. The department store has increased adverts in Chinese magazines and is testing campaigns around Chinese payment system Union Pay, it said.
Luxury firms are also going online to woo Chinese shoppers. Tiffany has a Chinese engagement ring app while Chanel offers an online make-up “classroom”. Italian fashion house Fendi has held talks on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, while Prada SpA and Christian Dior SA have Chinese videos online.
Luxury travel clubs for wealthy Chinese travelers have also their iPad App: The Shanghai Travelers’ Club has its own App, entirely in Chinese Mandarin, and features articles about US$50M private jets, gold plated hand made laptops, or entire private islands for rent for discerning (and rich) Chinese tourists.
Luxury leather goods firm Coach Inc has a U.S.-focused campaign in Mandarin using popular Chinese social media app WeChat. The app, developed by Tencent Holdings Ltd , has 272 million users worldwide.
Coach tailors some of its U.S. products for Chinese shoppers, a spokeswoman said. Chinese are the fast-growing segment of the firm’s North American tourist sales, which make up a fifth of total sales in the region.
“This trend is going to continue because the Chinese are a lot more integrated in the global economy and really informed, especially about price,” said Bruno Lannes, Shanghai-based partner with Bain and lead author of the luxury market report.
“At the end of the day it comes to the same thing: shoppers will either travel or go online to buy abroad.”