On a cloudy Wednesday, we boarded a bus with a dozen Chinese and drove two hours from Manhattan to the Woodbury Outlet located in Central Valley, New York. We were not shopping, but joining a group of local tour agency owners who organize trips for mainland Chinese tourists. For visitors to New York, they said, the destination was “just as essential as climbing to the top of Empire State Building.”
One of the tour guides, Mr. Yi, pulled me close and whispered, “I invented this tour route back in 2007. It was built in 1993, but it wasn’t until the last few years that it became a hot spot for Chinese.”
He proudly told me that this was the first time the company that owns the outlet, Simon Property Group, had invited Chinese tour operators to join their incentive program. Simon Property would be introducing new offerings at the village that they could in turn share with their customers.
While we were talking, the group moved at a fast pace. We were taken from one store to another — Saks Fifth Ave, Bally, Max Mara, Bottega Veneta — all of them located near the entrance and favorites with Chinese shoppers.
In each store, the sales assistant, typically a Mandarin speaker, would introduce special collections only offered at this location as well as items with extra discounts. At the end of the presentations, tour guides would pull out their phones to befriend staff on WeChat, keeping them safely in their contacts.
“There are 13 million visitors [to Woodbury] every year and a sizable portion of them are Chinese,” Roland Figueredo, the director of Marketing and Business Development at Woodbury, told us. “Thirty percent of tour groups are from China,” he said.
Besides its outreach program for tour group operators, Figueredo said the company’s own tourism department also works to develop and cater to the Chinese market.
“We try to partner with retailers for special discounts and offers for these groups. We also try to provide them with top level service and amenities while they are here,” said Figueredo.
Services and amenities were indeed improved as a result of Woodbury’s multi-million dollar redevelopment this year. Carts are available to ferry shoppers from the parking lots to stores. Complimentary Wi-Fi is also available throughout, a must for mobile-savvy Chinese shoppers keen to compare prices and products. Woodbury also created a welcome center where visitors can store personal belongings in lockers while they shop.
“Chinese people always run into the problem of buying too much and not having enough room in their luggage to carry it back,” Mr. Li said. He suggested building an international shipping service in the welcome center so that the customers don’t have to limit their buying.
When we contacted him a month later, he said he is going to hold a meeting with Woodbury to further discuss the idea.
“When we are putting together an event, we not only want (the local tour agencies) to bring suggestions, but we also want them to talk about any challenges they are having,” said Renata Bjorkman, who works at LA-based China strategy and marketing consultancy firm Gold Linq, Simon Property Group’s outreach partner. “We want this to be a long-term relationship.”
Bjorkman told us that Simon Property is looking to include more and more local Chinese and overseas Chinese in their outreach. Right before Black Friday, it partnered with Vogue US, to invite Chinese fashion bloggers to the US, as well as student ambassadors from Fordham, NYU, and Columbia, to enjoy a shopping spree.
“I feel like the experience is a turn around of the stereotypes I always held against outlets,” fashion influencers Serena told me. “I was impressed by their VIP services and the types of designer brands they have that younger people are more interested in — such as Rag&bone and Lululemon. The outlet feels more dynamic and exciting.” As she was talking, she picked up a Max Mara coat and told me it was a very good bargain for the quality of the coat. I should get one before they sold out.
“People on the ground are excited, Simon Property is excited, the retailer is excited, but we also understand that for the Chinese market, you need the relationships,” Bjorkman said.
Sounds like Simon Property Group hopes to be more than just WeChat friends with Chinese tour group operators.