Western brands eye Chinese women

Senior management at H&M in Beijing open the retailer's first store in the Chinese capital.
The opening of clothing retailer H&M’s first store in China’s capital was marked by the sight of hundreds of umbrellas clustered around its front doors.

These were fearless shoppers, determined to get fist dibs on the new merchandise. It was a cold and rainy morning as salespeople opened dozens of new branded umbrellas and passed them out for free. Two women at the front of the line said they had been waiting since 6 a.m. The store didn’t open for five more hours. “We heard about it in Shanghai and did some research,” one woman said. “We checked its Web site and its new designs. We loved it.” Young, urban Chinese women who love Western brands are H&M’s target market. “I only buy foreign brands,” said 22-year-old Xiao Xiao, who owns her own online fashion boutique. “H&M offers a combination of fashion and cheap prices,” another woman said. “It’s a brand that suits the public needs well.” This is a city hungry for the latest fashion and good deals. When the doors opened, the throngs flooded in, pawing the racks as if the clothes would disappear in a second. Xiao Xiao tripped and fell. The Beijing branch is H&M’s tenth store in mainland China, after opening in Shanghai, Nanjing, Changzhou, Shenzhen and Wuxi. China is a crucial part of H&M’s plan to grow its brand in Asia. “Everybody knows China has 1.3 billion people,” said country manager Lex Keijser. “If we can bring in all these customers in the future to H&M, and dress them into our fashion, that will be great.” “H&M is targeting young women from the age of 20-35,” said marketing consultant Ray Ally. “They’re looking for a very kind of Western fashion. They want clothes they can’t buy in China from local brands.”

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H&M is one of several Western companies seeking to expand in China, especially in light of bad sales back home due to the economic crisis. They’re hoping to cash in on young professional women who want to be their own person, create their own style and have the money to do it. “Women tend to spend more on brands,” said Ally. “They’re more self-conscious, more aware of health and beauty issues.” Toy manufacturer Mattel recently opened a flagship store in Shanghai. It includes six glistening floors filled with not just Barbie dolls, but branded luxury goods aimed at young women who want to channel their inner “Barbie girl.” Unilever-owned Dove is sponsoring the Chinese version of the TV Show “Ugly Betty.” Episodes feature several seconds of fairly obvious product placement. And, Estee Lauder’s Clinique is trying to reach China’s 300 million netizens via the Internet with “Sufei’s Diary.” The digital sitcom profiles Sufei, a college student who deals with health and beauty issues. In one episode, she battles her pimples with Clinique’s skin care cosmetics. This kind of non-traditional marketing is well-suited to Chinese consumers who spend many more hours online than watching television. Of course, it will take some time to see what the payoff is. “Sufei’s Diary” is reportedly a hit. But China’s “Ugly Betty” show hasn’t won such a huge following. Some bloggers write that they don’t think the main character is “ugly enough.” As for H&M, its Beijing store is off to a good start. Minutes after opening, Xiao Xiao, now back on her feet, was already carrying piles of clothing. “The blue suit, the pink shorts, the peacock clutch bag, I got them all,” she said. “I knew exactly what I wanted.”