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Newcomers in China may find market saturated

By Xu Junqian (China Daily)

15:46, July 20, 2012

A Marks & Spencer Plc department store in Shanghai. Statistics from the National Commercial Information Center of China showed that the sales of 50 large department stores in China increased by 8.15 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2012. (Photo/China Daily)

But foreign companies continue to push aggressive expansion plans

By noon on Monday, a dozen shoppers were milling about the newly opened Marks & Spencer Plc department store on Huaihai Road in Shanghai.

Wearing loose-fitting shirts and drowsy, listless looks, the shoppers, mostly middle-aged women, were outnumbered by the shop assistants inside. Rather than peruse the clothes and accessories put carefully on display, most of them appeared to have entered the store to bask in free air conditioning.

Asked about the scarcity of customers, a saleswoman who declined to provide her name said: "It's Monday and it's already better than we had expected".

The other side of Huaihai Road offered the casual observer a study in contrasts. There a Zara store displayed large posters to advertise a sale and was packed with long lines of customers waiting to pay at counters or trying on clothes inside fitting rooms.

Despite slumping sales, rising costs and increasing competition from domestic online-shopping websites, foreign retailers are showing no signs of wanting to back away from their plans to venture into crowded shopping streets in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.

Shortly after Marks & Spencer opened its Shanghai store - its biggest in Asia - Pascal Martin, regional director for Asia at the company, disclosed an ambitious plan to open another eight outlets in the country in the next 12 months.

Macy's Inc, a US department store chain, has meanwhile announced plans to invest $15 million in the Chinese luxury shopping website VIPStore, and will sell merchandise under its own brand on a sub-channel of the website starting in spring 2013.

"Our relationship with VIPStore will allow us to gain additional experience in the fast-growing Chinese market and to better understand how consumers across China interact with Macy's and the products we sell," Terry J. Lundgren, chairman of Macy's Inc, said in an official announcement about the investment.

"We continue to believe there is a significant long-term opportunity internationally for both Macy's and Bloomingdale's. But we need to be certain that our future decisions in this regard are based on facts and experience."

Many retail experts say Macy's investment is the latest sign that foreign retailers hope their overseas stores will make up for the stagnation they are seeing in their home markets. Others said the deal will help the company decide if it wants to open a physical store in China.

"Although 2011 has been a tough year for domestic retailers - sales have not been increasing as quickly as in the past and the market has become more and more divided by e-commerce - China remains a very lucrative place for foreign department stores, many of which are struggling among sluggish economic conditions in their domestic markets," said Ye Qizheng, a senior counselor for the fashion industry and the founder of the website Chinese Fashion Digest.

He said overseas tourism, especially trips during US or Western holidays such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, has let Chinese customers become familiar with foreign stores.

"So it's only a matter of time before more come over," Ye said.

Many are moving in that direction.

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