Brit expats in China devastated as M&S pulls out

Published:  15 Mar at 6 PM
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At first glance, China would seem to be the perfect place for Marks and Sparks, as the company’s affectionately known in the UK, but today’s announcement comes less than a year after the brand lunched its tenth store.

The surprising news may well come as a blow to the high number of British expats living and working in China’s huge cities, as there’s a limited choice of high quality imported foodstuffs anywhere else in the retail sector. In a contrast to expat reactions, local Chinese shoppers in Beijing were more than happy to read about and take advantage of the massive discounts on M&S’s remaining stock, even although most hadn’t even heard of the quintessentially British retailer.

The Beijing outlet’s store management was given the unwelcome job of supervising the ‘fire sale’ and managing the hour-long queues of eager Chinese buyers thronging the store. One lucky Chinese customer, seen pushing a trolley loaded with three dozen bottles of Rioja through the crowds, told Telegraph reporters he’d have paid full price for one bottle had he known M&S stocked it. 30-year old Mr Cheng, an IT manager earning around £50,000, added he’d no idea the store even existed until the sale was publicised.

Unsurprisingly, when M&S’s Greater China MD was asked why the company was quitting China, he said low brand awareness was a major contributor to the decision to withdraw. He added the growth of market shares is challenging given the way Chinese markets operate, in spite of the fact the country’s retail market is now the world’s largest at just under £4 trillion a year.

According to Jim James, MD of Morgan Cars China, discerning shoppers are the real reason, with British brands having a head start but failing to follow up on initial successes by adapting to Chinese cultural norms, styles and sizes. Questions are being asked as to the real reasons for M&S’s failure to reach out to Chinese consumers, especially considering the curious attraction of traditional ‘Britishness’ in the country. Beijing’s l Harrow and Dulwich international schools are leading the pack, Chinese kids love Harry Potter and imported British cars are undisputed status symbols, but M&S seems to have failed to understand the need to target all sectors of the Chinese consumer market.

Some years ago, M&S had a reasonably popular presence in two of Thailand’s major cities, Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but both stores closed almost without notice, a surprising withdrawal given the high number of UK expats living and working in the kingdom. Whilst this withdrawal didn’t attract much media coverage, former expat patrons’ comments suggest the reasons were much the same as given for the China closures.
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