High Street fashion brands look to China for profits
Published: 15th Jul 2012 16:24:48
Student Michelle Yu, from Hangzhou in eastern China, spends around 2,000 yuan ($300;£200) of her parents' money each month on clothes.
Clutching a recent purchase while pop music blares out of a nearby store, she says her favourite brands are Louis Vuitton and Gucci.
But, as her budget rarely stretches this far, she likes to shop at Zara, H&M and the other Western chains that are springing up across China.
"They are fashionable and cheap," she tells BBC News while in Hong Kong for a shopping trip with her mother, father and sister over a recent holiday weekend.
Everybody is rushing into China, but I think there will be more losers than winners”
Luxury labels have thrived in China and now their cheaper High Street counterparts are betting that young, fashion-conscious shoppers like Ms Yu, 20, will help them weather weak economies in their home markets in the US and Europe.
"They target a very different consumer segment compared to their luxury counterparts, but being Western brands they will always have a certain cachet with the Chinese consumer," says Ashma Kunde, a London-based global retail analyst at research group Euromonitor.
However, they will encounter stiffer competition from established local chains than their luxury forerunners, and with many brands expanding aggressively in China, they will also be vying with each other for customers.
Moreover, China's fickle consumers are unlikely to warm to all brands equally and may grow pickier as the Chinese economy is forecast to experience its slowest growth in 13 years in 2012.
"Whether they succeed will depend on their product. If their product can justify their pricing, if it's distinctive enough, it has the potential to do well," says Ms Kunde.
Many brands have ambitious plans for China and others are entering the market for the first time this year.
They are competing in an apparel market that was worth $243bn last year, not far behind the US market that was worth $331bn.
It has the potential to grow much bigger, with Euromonitor forecasting growth of 14% a year until 2016, and shopping mall space set to equal European levels within a decade.
Sweden's H&M opened 32 outlets last year and now has 78 stores in China. Zara, owned by Spain's Inditex, had 92 stores in 30 cities at the end of 2011.
Gap aims to have 45 stores by the end of the year, while Japanese chain Uniqlo plans to open 100 new stores every year in China, according to Euromonitor data.
US fashion chains Forever 21 and J Crewe, a casual wear retailer favoured by Michelle Obama, will begin selling their clothing lines in China this year, and Abercrombie & Fitch will open a flagship store in August in Hong Kong.
While UK luxury labels like Mulberry and Burberry have enjoyed huge success in China, High Street names have been slower to embrace international expansion.
Marks and Spencer is the only British clothing chain with a significant presence in China, although fashion chain Top Shop had a pop-up store during Beijing design week last year, a move some say could herald a more permanent foothold.
Shaun Rein, managing director of Shanghai-based China Market Research Group and the author of the "The End of Cheap China", says that fast fashion retailers like H&M and Zara that quickly churn out affordable copies of runway designs are most likely to succeed.
Source: Euromonitor International
He says brands like Gap, Marks & Spencer, Abercrombie & Fitch and Banana Republic will find it difficult to gain any traction in China because they fall into a middle-class image trap, where the product is fairly expensive for the local market, but carries little prestige.
"The middle class in China - they trade up or trade down and anything in the middle will struggle," he says.
"That's why I am very bearish on M&S as their DNA is very middle class. You buy our clothes because you want to present yourself as middle class - that's not something that any Chinese person I've ever met wants.
"When we interview Chinese who are middle class, they really think they are on the way to riches because everyone knows someone that 15 years ago was a dirt-poor farmer but now is driving a BMW."
Branding has also presented challenges for some players in China.
US retailer American Apparel found that its overtly sexy marketing was not to local tastes and ultimately had to close down some stores.
Gap promotes its 1969 jeans, but in China the year is associated with the violence of the Cultural Revolution not flower-power nostalgia, Mr Rein notes.
And even the foreign fashion brands that have the biggest market share in China are not yet household names that trip off local shoppers' tongues.
Zhang Jin, 33, visiting Hong Kong for the first time on a shopping trip, had not heard of H&M, Zara, Gap, Uniqlo or Marks and Spencer, even though she comes from Beijing where many of them have been in business longest.
She says she's happy to splurge on a designer handbag, but prefers to buy local brand clothes and shoes.
Source: Euromonitor International
European names have so far fared better than their US counterparts, with Europe more closely associated with high fashion rather than the preppy, casual wear favoured by some American brands.
"One of Gap's problems was not just its price positioning, but its product was considered too bland for what people had to pay for it, and it wasn't considered trendy or up-to-date enough," Ms Kunde says.
Moreover, home-grown retailers like Metersbonwe, Belle International and Bestseller Group, which all own several brands, are still expanding market share in China despite the influx of Western names.
"I think there will be a place in the market for local brands that understand the consumer much better, especially because Chinese women sometimes have this very cute style of dressing, which is not necessarily reflected in the more fashion-forward styles in Europe," says Ms Kunde.
Mr Rein says that mid-range brands will perhaps find a more receptive audience in five to 10 years time, when a middle-class socio-economic status is more established in China and people realise that "not everyone can be a millionaire".
For now though, he remains sceptical, saying that the Gap stores he has visited in China are often empty: "Everybody is rushing into China but I think there will be more losers than winners."
At 00:59:22 in PoliticsA "badly managed" Home Office scheme resulted in asylum seekers being placed in "unacceptably poor" housing, the Public Accounts Committee has said.
At 00:48:17 in HeadlinesSouth Sudan's President Salva Kiir has sacked the head of the army.
At 00:39:06 in EnglandThe decline of some regional English dialects has been mourned for years but now sign language is being hit by the same trend. Researchers say regional variations that produced 22 different ways of signing the word "purple" are dying out.
At 00:29:16 in HeadlinesFormula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone is set to appear at the start of a trial on bribery charges in Munich.
At 00:16:58 in BusinessEnergy grids across the world are struggling to cope with a surge in demand for electricity and increasingly volatile supply from renewable power sources.
At 00:11:50 in SportEighteen-time US Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps says concerns about weight gain were behind his decision to return to the sport.
At 00:09:32 in BusinessBeckford's Tower stands proudly on the hills overlooking the spa city of Bath, a monument to eccentricity and wealth.
At 00:01:40 in TechnologyDrones are becoming more common in our skies, performing a variety of tasks, from taking photos to monitoring crops and potentially even delivering broadband.
At 00:01:37 in HeadlinesBritish counter-terrorism police chiefs are making an unprecedented appeal to Muslim women to urge men against travelling to possibly fight in Syria.
At 23:52:22 in SportA turbulent three days for Manchester United has ended with them fending off allegations of unprofessionalism labelled against them by the League Managers Association (LMA).
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. High Street fashion brands look to China for profits [Online] (Updated 15th Jul 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1440645/High-Street-fashion-brands-look-to-China-for-profits [Accessed 24th Apr 2014]
News In Other Categories
The Irish education minister has proposed a radical shake-up of the further education sector.
Energy grids across the world are struggling to cope with a surge in demand for electricity and increasingly volatile supply from renewable power sources.
South Sudan's President Salva Kiir has sacked the head of the army.
The decline of some regional English dialects has been mourned for years but now sign language is being hit by the same trend. Researchers say regional variations that produced 22 different ways of signing the word "purple" are dying out.
Griff Rhys Jones has withdrawn from becoming Cardiff University's new chancellor just two weeks after an embarrassing debacle which saw his appointment halted at the last minute.
US actress Jodie Foster has married her girlfriend, Alexandra Hedison, the actress' representative confirms.