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Shoppers spoilt for choice on retail front

By Zhu Wenqian | China Daily | Updated: 2020-02-17 09:06
A wide-angle image of the People's Square of Shanghai, where the Singapore-based CapitaLand operates its Raffles City mall. The 15-year-old mall has been innovating to make itself a standout retail destination in the digital age. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Department stores, new-age malls vie for consumers amid e-commerce explosion

In the age of New Retail, operators of traditional department stores, malls and e-commerce platforms in China are turning ingenious to find novel ways of staying afloat and relevant, as consumers' tastes and preferences evolve rapidly, with focus on consumption upgrade and shopping as an experience in itself.

Coined in 2016 by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, the term New Retail refers to the integration, or interlinking, of online and offline shopping using modern technologies, data and customer engagement techniques. New Retail, Ma said, is making the distinction between physical and virtual commerce obsolete by combining the best in physical and online retail.

For now, it seems department stores may be trailing in the race for sales revenue. "Consumers have shown an increasingly diversified and personalized demand. Traditional department stores should adjust their focus to offer multi-dimensional services, and stop being pure retail stores," said Neil Wang, president of consultancy Frost& Sullivan China.

Wang said trendy shopping malls are integrating a plethora of attractions like dining, entertainment facilities like cinemas, exhibitions, salons, hypermarkets, exclusive outlets of brands, yoga studios and sometimes even a mini-zoo, all of which offer irresistible, all-under-one-roof convenience to consumers.

On the other hand, shoppers have taken a shine to e-commerce. Against this backdrop, traditional retailers like department stores find themselves struggling due to rising labor cost and high rentals, which are inflating their losses.

Some of them have shuttered, while others strive to adjust their business models. A few department stores are even trying to cater to new demand for top-quality goods and comprehensive services, to ensure shopping on their premises remains fun.

But many old-fashioned department stores have seen their growth slowing in the Chinese market in recent years, in sharp contrast to earlier days when they could make some easy and quick money.

"Department stores should also increase the portion of their self-operated business, and avoid homogenization of brands. In fact, compared with the highly competitive retail industry in Japan and the United States, China's department stores have ample room for growth. There aren't any monopoly department stores taking top market positions yet," Wang said.

Given their brick-and-mortar model and physical space, department stores would do well to hold exhibitions and events, to create new revenue streams that can help them to compete with e-commerce platforms and draw more consumers, he said.

Although already popular, and in spite of the travails of department stores, malls in China are in no mood to become complacent. For instance, Beijing Parkview Green shopping mall launched special operations for the holiday season from December to end of January.

It added more modern designs, decorations and lighting shows. That's not all. It extended its opening hours on Fridays and Saturdays.

On weekend evenings, it continues to hold recreational events such as film and art exhibitions, reading clubs and live music performances. By launching such events, it aims to attract more shoppers, create consumer stickiness on its premises and stimulate overall sales.

The mall also cooperates with Shouqi limousine and chauffeur service firms. This helps maintain adequate number of vehicles on its parking lot through the evenings, to serve consumers at short notice.

"Our events enable consumers to enjoy a social space that is complete with arts and fun, and help further promote the night economy and night culture in Beijing," said Xu Guanglei, general manager of sales and marketing at Parkview Green.

In contrast, the growth of department stores has been constrained in recent years. One major reason was the rapid development of supermarket chains, convenience stores and online shopping platforms.

From 2013 to 2017, the compound annual growth rate of department stores in China was 3.5 percent, according to consultancy Frost& Sullivan.

In 2017, department stores started to transform their business model to better cater to the new economic trend and consumption patterns.

Overall sales of department stores in the country reached 424.76 billion yuan ($60.85 billion) in 2017, up 9 percent over 2016.

Some traditional department stores such as Yintai Group, Bailian Group and Liqun Group have strengthened their cooperation with internet giants such as Alibaba Group and Tencent Holdings Ltd, to integrate online shopping and their offline supply chains, giving a new twist to New Retail.

Others such as Parkson Retail Group, a retail division of the Malaysian Lion Group, embraced the principle of 'if you can beat 'em, join them'.

Its move is understandable, given its history in China. Parkson opened its first department store in 1994 in Beijing. During its initial years, it netted high revenue from sales of high-end products. But now, it is struggling to compete with online shopping platforms and new-age malls.

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