According to the IMF, Asia is set to contribute to 70 percent of global economic growth this year alone, with China accounting for almost 35 percent of that figure. As the mainland reopens post-Covid, luxury businesses stand to benefit from the return of Chinese holiday goers to the UK.
High-end tourists spend 14 times more in the UK per trip than the average tourist, reports the official sector body for UK luxury, Walpole. London retailers’ strategy of re-welcoming China is thus a climacteric opportunity for economic growth and an overall resurgence of activity.
However, tourists aren’t the only ones returning. More Chinese students are also expected to arrive in the UK; in fact, a record number of 151,690 Chinese students arrived at British universities in 2021-22 — more than any other country in the world.
Furthermore, the 2021 government decision to drop tax-free shopping for tourists in the UK has deepened competition between retailers in the capital, and weakened competitive advantage with other European destinations like Paris or Milan.
Not only does London’s luxury industry need to be aware of the shopping preferences of Chinese travelers but also the defining qualities of this specific demographic of high-spending Chinese students. When surveyed, London retailers told The Walpole that the personal profile of local shoppers is the biggest key to their success, along with customer experience.
Below we detail the characteristics of Chinese tourists, shoppers and students in the UK and the key factors that London businesses should consider to best serve them.
Physical shopping experiences trumps e-commerce in the UK
According to a Browns’ customer experience director, Lee Whittle, a connected retail journey is important for strengthening the retailer’s relationship with international clients. After shopping in person at Browns’ flagship store — where two Mandarin-speaking advisors are available to assist — Chinese tourists can return home and easily access Browns’ selection via its app, website, or directly communicate with a style advisor over Whatsapp.
Due to the superiority of e-commerce experiences in the mainland, Chinese tourists and students actually prefer shopping in bricks-and-mortar spaces in the UK. Shanghai-born influencer and University of the Arts London graduate Julie Sun tells Jing Daily, “I shop more when I’m in London compared to China, because I just shop on Taobao there. But in London, I prefer to shop in person.”
“E-commerce feels like a lot of work in the UK,” Sun continues. “In China, everything is in one place, on one platform. You just click and pay, scan your face and it’s done. It’s all super fast. But in the West, there are all independent websites where you have to input all your personal information when you purchase anything. It’s so much work. So, there’s no impulse purchasing.”
Anhui province-born Elettra Chen, who works as a client advisor at Burberry on Regent Street, adds that central shopping streets such as Oxford Street and Regent Street, as well as “any sample sales” are really popular among Chinese consumers.
Without the role of a one-app-does-all platform like WeChat in the West, physical stores — along with seamless customer service and an awareness of how their location is perceived — will be crucial to business growth.
Department stores drive impulse buying
Chen, who names Alexander McQueen as one of her favorite brands to shop, emphasizes that offline stores fuel impulse purchasing. “Honestly, [Chinese] students buy things so easily. They just buy anything they want in luxury stores [in London]. There have been so many Chinese people shopping in department stores like Harrods since the country reopened,” she says.
Multibrand locations such as Harrods or Selfridges appeal the most to Chinese visitors due to their similarity to local shopping malls.
“That’s one of the biggest differences in the UK to China — the lack of huge retail malls,” says Sun. “Hong Kong created a way of shopping that China copied, with large malls. You have restaurants, luxury brands, and so much in one place. This is how Chinese consumers want to shop so they like places like Westfield [shopping mall].”
It is for this reason that Browns’ in-store Native restaurant and courtyard are particularly popular among Chinese consumers.
Sun enjoys browsing stores even if she doesn’t always spend, but her London-based Chinese friends make luxury purchases twice or three times a month on average.
“I do like hanging out at stores, but I’m careful with how much I spend on clothes every month,” she says, reflecting the leisurely approach that she and her fellow students experience in the British capital.
Cultural differences and pain points
The number of Chinese students in London is increasing, but their return home rate is high. According to China’s Ministry of Education, over 80 percent of all Chinese students overseas go back to the mainland after completing their studies. One of the reasons comes down to cultural differences. Shanghai-born Sun describes both perceived poorer customer service and interpersonal relations as some of the most stark differences that she faces living in London.
“Culturally, Western people stick to strict rules and laws, without bending them to suit consumer experience. They aren’t as flexible so it is hard to [acclimatize] as a Chinese person living in London,” says Sun.
“For example, one time, I ordered food and I was on the tube when it arrived and I was going to be arriving five minutes later. In China, the driver would be happy to leave the food outside, but in the UK, the guy just laughed and I couldn’t even get my refund of £25. Customer service is so important in China, you would always get a 100-percent refund.”
According to Sun, guanxi-enabled enhanced customer services is more socially accepted compared the U.K. One way Browns strives to accommodate its Chinese clientele is via direct communication with a style advisor over Whatsapp, says Whittle.
“Now that the UK no longer operates tax-free shopping, we have looked at ways to continue to reward our international clients providing benefits in-store and post-purchase. We also invite customers to immerse themselves in our curated world of luxury fashion through bespoke services,” he says.
This focus on a seamless customer experience is vital for luxury brands wanting to attract overseas Chinese. However, they should also consider the contrasting expectations when it comes to social interaction.
When working for luxury agency Purple PR, Sun realized the stark differences in how Chinese and Westerners communicate.
“In China, we grew up with the Confucian philosophy, which is all about encouraging you to be humble and unaggressive,” she says. “East Asian people are generally not that proactive compared to Western people. So, in the office environment in particular, it looks like we are not good at talking but we just focus on working really hard and not talking too much.”
London feels calmer than China to most
Many Chinese diapsora and students like Sun feel that London as calmer than major cities in China. With fewer crowds and earlier closures of stores and restaurants, the British capital appears less chaotic.
“In London, most of the time, I feel like I can get some inner peace, but in China, it feels like you are in such a rush all the time,” says Sun.
This mindset should fuel soul-enriching shopping experiences, catering to the needs of those travelling from China to destress in London. Popular shopping neighborhoods such as Notting Hill, Covent Garden, and Mayfair all offer a quintessentially British, leisurely getaway for tourists, which should be a place of respite.
From Chinese-speaking staff, to Asian cuisine options, and curated brands — Browns stocks the likes of local independent designers Feng Chen Wang and Shushu/Tong in their in-store offering — the bricks-and-mortar retail experience needs to take all of the characteristics of its crucial Chinese customer into consideration in 2023.