Chinese outbound travelers are the biggest tourism market in the world for international high-end brands. Last year, more than 135 million people in China took trips abroad, and by 2021, they should be spending more than $450 billion, according to Forbes.
This is why it’s surprising when, despite the accelerating international growth of social media marketing and overseas payment platforms like WeChat and Alipay, I still see brands struggling to connect with their Chinese customers.
I recently returned from a trip to London where I spent a considerable amount of time shopping in the city’s most tourist-friendly destinations. The UK is particularly attractive for Chinese tourists as it has become more inexpensive following the Brexitreferendum. Popular shopping destinations like Harrods and Camden Market have been rolling out the red carpet for Chinese travel shoppers, investing more in WeChat services and hiring Putonghua-speaking staff.
Personally, I was eager to check out the stores whose brands had already entered China, and I was satisfied and not very surprised when I saw that not only were the product offerings more extensive, but that the prices were considerably more affordable. Brands I had once written off suddenly became very attractive. And Chinese tourists apparently felt the same way because there was hardly a store I was in that didn’t have at least one Chinese customer inside.
I perused a selection of tote bags in one of these boutiques, and asked the saleswoman if she could open up a package so that I could better see the bag’s pattern. As the friendly saleswoman conversed with me, I noticed a Chinese woman was also looking at the bags, seemingly unable to make up her mind, and the lack of a Chinese-speaking sales clerks meant that this shopper wasn’t able to get the full experience of friendly customer service that I received.
Later, at the checkout counter, I noticed that there was a WeChat QR code allowing customers to pay using WeChat. That same Chinese customer came to the counter with British pounds in hand, seemingly unaware that the option to pay with WeChat was available. When it came time to pay, the same sales clerk handed over a sheet of paper that invited me to give my email for a receipt and future discounts. As I filled it out, I noticed that the form was translated into Chinese on the back. However, the Chinese customer didn’t seem to know what to do with the form and didn’t fill it out, potentially meaning a lost opportunity for the brand to connect with that consumer again.
Had the customer simply been asked to scan the WeChat QR code, that could have achieved a similar goal for the brand and would have likely been even better than getting the customer’s email information. Yet, the lack of trained salespeople meant this advantage was overlooked.
Brands that are having success with Chinese tourists are generally encouraged to hire sales staff that are not only able to speak Putonghua but are trained in marketing tactics that specifically target Chinese customers. In the end, the brand made the sale, but whether those customers will ever come back on another trip to London, or even in China, is much more uncertain.