Spain’s El Corte Inglés Shows Retailers How to “Tango” With Chinese Shoppers

Founded in Madrid in 1940, El Corte Inglés is the largest department store chain in Europe and third largest in the world. With nearly 100 locations throughout the Iberian Peninsula, El Corte Inglés has had a front-row seat for the emergence of the outbound Chinese tourist-shopper over the past decade, watching as this buyer base took its first tentative steps into luxury boutiques in Western Europe and over time became a big-spending bloc everywhere from Madrid and Barcelona to La Coruña and Bilbao.

In recent years, El Corte Inglés has made inroads in attracting not just tour operator-led groups stocking up on Louis Vuitton and Gucci, but also younger solo travelers hoping to nab a wider range of brands both large and small while on trips to Spain. (As well as Spain-based Chinese students or expats.) According to 2018 estimates, El Corte Inglés receives 150,000 visitors from China each year, a figure that will continue to grow along with the number of direct flights between Spain and mainland China.

Using a toolkit that includes in-store activations and social media outreach, as well as collaborations with Chinese travel and fashion influencers and accepting a range of Chinese forms of payment, El Corte Inglés has been quick to spot the opportunity that Chinese tourist-shoppers present, while remaining mindful of their responsibility not to alienate shoppers from other key domestic and international markets — which can be a tricky path to tread.

To learn more about what El Corte Inglés has done to attract Chinese shoppers and encourage return visits, Jing Daily sat down with Javier Fernández Andrino, Director of International Marketing & Luxury Strategy at El Corte Inglés:

Javier Fernández Andrino

Javier Fernández Andrino.

The number of Chinese travelers visiting Spain is rising year by year (surpassing 649,000 in 2018). What is it that attracts them to El Corte Inglés?

“For years, [El Corte Inglés] has been working hard on brand recognition in China, as well as facilitating purchases for Chinese tourists. A 10% discount [for Chinese passport holders] and a simple tax-free process contribute to the best experience. They also respond positively to services like personal shoppers and hands-free shopping, which reinforce our passion for personalization.”

How do Chinese shoppers’ habits or demands differ from other customers?

“Chinese customers are very clear about the products they want to find, and in our Flagship Castellana stores in Madrid and our Diagonal location in Barcelona they always find them. Having all the products in one center and being able to complete an entire Tax-Free process [in store] is critical for them. In these stores you can also always find at least one shop assistant who speaks Chinese.”

What products do you typically see Chinese tourists drawn to more than others? 

“Chinese travelers are looking for European luxury brands in particular and increasingly, more exclusive Spanish brands. We see how they are exploring more and more, and how every day they become more interested in Spanish culture.”

What is El Corte Inglés doing online, via social media, and digital marketing, to encourage Chinese tourists to not just visit, but to tell their friends about ECI?

We know Chinese digital and social media is booming and we leverage two main Chinese social media platforms to keep communicating with Chinese shopping lovers: Weibo and WeChat. There are two ways to encourage Chinese consumers to share about El Corte Inglés: One, through high-quality content. In the weekly content we push out, we focus on content quality and feature current fashion trends and inspirational topics with charming imagery. The goal is for the viewer to want to share this social content with their friends.

We also have a great in-house digital marketing team and China-based social media consulting agency, and new tech and digital formats are key for this market. Specifically, during 2020 Golden Week, we will develop H5/Mini Programs to engage our audience — stay tuned for that. Another important element is our strategic partnership with Alipay. They support us with co-branding social incentive campaigns and around some key shopping festivals.”

How effective have you found working with Chinese influencers (or celebrities), compared to building word of mouth among loyal customers?

We have to work both angles, thanks to their ability to reach out to large audience segments. Collaborations with influencers can be very helpful in building brand awareness, so finding influencers whose interests and values align with our brand is crucial. On top of that, loyal customers are very important for us, and we work tirelessly to turn our regular customers into our [long-term] brand ambassadors.”

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Shopping & Duty-Free