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Understanding the importance of the store experience to the Chinese


Anyone who has had any interaction with Chinese consumers, whether in China or elsewhere in the world will no doubt agree that their manner and characteristics are not like those of other nationalities. And for those who meet them without the benefit of a great deal of international travel exposure, their behaviour and attitudes can on occasion be ‘shocking’. Not because its completely unacceptable, but that its unexpected.

Those who have lived and worked in China for long enough adapt to this behaviour and either ignore it, or are actively prepared to handle it. But what is still amazing to the observers among us is that many brands still fail to acknowledge these Chinese mannerisms when creating their store experiences. They come to China and use a store design created in their home country by a design team with no understanding of China or the Chinese.

Although it may be easy to argue that the brand must be consistent in the way it presents itself and its retail execution, we all also understand that some level of localisation is required across the brand presence in most territories globally. If we put the stock profile to one side for the moment, we need to consider the impact the impression the store makes on the Chinese eye, the way the products are presented within the store space and how the staff engage with the Chinese consumer.

The attention span of Chinese consumers is generally quite short and therefore the brand has a very limited opportunity to attract the consumer into the store, to hold them there and then to draw them towards a purchase. Every part of this process must work together or there is a risk of losing them, their attention level dropping and a sales opportunity being lost. The other point to take into account is whether the Chinese consumer really knows what they want to purchase, as often they will not. They are fishing for ideas and triggers to make a purchase.

A joined up picture

If you have ever watch Chinese consumers, you will see that often they are reluctant to enter a store because they don’t see from the outside anything that looks familiar or attracts their attention. They look up and down at the windows, peer past the window dressing and if nothing catches their eye, they move on. Of course if they know the brand or have been to the store before, they are less likely to hover outside, but even a store that was once familiar that has changed its external appearance could throw them.

The Chinese consumer works on complete or joined up images as these tell a story that they can quickly process. If we just consider their written language, it’s made up of characters that are in fact pictures, that when joined together tell a story or make up a word as we would know it. Store designs that are created by western minds for western brains potentially fail to trigger the Chinese brain to recognise and respond to them. The ‘western’ consumer is far more adept at taking the pieces of a retail jigsaw puzzle as it is presented in a store and placing them in their own personal context than the Chinese.

By way of an example, lets consider two very different store designs, that of IKEA and Lane Crawford. For the sophisticated consumer, the store layout of Lane Crawford where products are loosely grouped and often not by brand, are not a concern because they can identify one product and know what they have that it will work with, or find something else in the store to complete the ensemble may be. For the Chinese mind, this is an incomplete picture, and not easy to understand.

IKEA on the other hand presents its products in groups, in a familiar environment for the Chinese consumer, and also leads them room-by-room. The Chinese see a joined up picture and often as a result, buy a complete set of items as they have seen them. The western mind may still benefit from the room settings, but consumers find it easier to separate items out and mix and match them together.

The first lesson here is to adapt to the consumer mentality rather than fighting it just because its done that way elsewhere in the world. Using complete images to demonstrate product in real life settings is a far easier sell to the Chinese than product in isolation. We only need to look at the huge number of adverts running in luxury magazines in China, and that those which show how the product fits into a persons lifestyle being more effective than images that do not.

Using recognisable hooks

The second consideration for a localised retail environment is the use of recognisable hooks; things that are of common interest to every Chinese person. We have seen how many brands over the past few years have used celebrities as ambassadors because they are trusted and looked up to by consumers. These are expensive hooks, but there are other far more cost effective ways to attract and retain the attention of the Chinese people in a store.

Two common elements in Chinese life that can be used as recognisable hooks are food and subtitles! This will sound bizarre in an article talking about luxury but they will draw and keep consumers attention, let us explain why. Every TV programme shown in China has subtitles, even if it’s a Chinese programme because of the variation in dialect or accent it’s easier for everyone just to read the spoken word in pinying. Therefore every Chinese is both familiar with subtitles and expects to see them, but they can read them quickly.

Relating to the earlier discussion in terms of delivering joined up pictures, video works well to tell a story, but it must be relevant, engaging and have subtitles because these work with the images. The Chinese consumer will stop, watch, read and engage rather than glancing at the pictures and moving on.

Food is a cultural focus for all Chinese as can be seen by full and overflowing restaurants and lines most lunchtimes and evenings. Images of food and family and friends enjoying it are a big hook and will always attract the attention of a Chinese person. If you want to sell TV’s to the Chinese; don’t show hi resolution images of the technical parts of the product; show video’s of food. They will remain attentive so that the sales staff can begin to engage with them and start the sales process.

Share learning experiences

The luxury consumer is now in the store, the environment is one they feel comfortable with, there are hooks that attract them to stay focused, the next task is for the retail staff to engage with them. Chinese luxury consumers in tier one cities these days are considerably more knowledgable than they were two years ago, and often they consider retail staff as lesser market experts and certainly not of their social status.

The challenge for the sales staff is to negate this attitude if they are to make a sale. To do this, they need to talk with the luxury consumer in a manner where they share learning experiences, allowing they to demonstrate their knowledge and to impart to them some new information that the brand wants them to know. For the Chinese consumer this style of communication allows them to retain face with the retail staff and learn something new without admitting that they didn’t actually have that particular piece of knowledge.

The consumer may now start to relax and feel more comfortable and can be more easily led by the retail staff along a path to making a purchase. It will be important to ask their opinion and listen to what they say, but keep including new and valuable information they can use in future. The approach of a shared learning experience leverages the entire store experience for the Chinese consumer who, as has been said before, may not know exactly what they want, or know that they want it. They have money to spend, but on a product or service that feels like a positive attribute in their lives.

The store experience has moved on

Having watched Chinese luxury consumers for many years, we saw them some years ago lining up outside the store desperate to buy. They rushed through the doors, up to the counter pointing at a product for the sales assistant to hand to them. They spent little time looking at it or the alternatives before saying yes, handing over the cash and leaving quickly.

Times have moved on, and the same consumers have to be persuaded to enter a store. Their choices are now more abundant and their knowledge considerably greater. They expect the purchase process to be an experience and not a simple transaction. Those brands that can paint a suitable picture, draw the consumer in and keep them there are brands that will win the consumer over. If the personal service and interaction they receive from the store staff is not condescending, but educates and informs, allows them to demonstrate their expertise and improve their luxury face, they will love the brand and as importantly promote it to their circle. Your store in China needs to address the Chinese consumer in a localised and culturally appropriate manner, and your stores elsewhere in the world need to understand how to apply these cultural necessities to the way they service the huge volume of travelling Chinese luxury consumers.


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