Expat dismay as Marks and Spencer deserts China

Published:  22 Nov at 6 PM
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Tagged: UK, China, Hong Kong, England
As if the shock of losing access to Uber wasn’t enough for Shanghai’s disparate expat community to bear, the news that Britain’s beloved Marks and Spencer store is to close all its Chinese branches may well be the last straw.

Uber’s recent decision to delete its English-language app as well as ending payment by credit card was a tough call for expats in Shanghai, most of whom are not fluent in the Chinese language. Even so, the decision by one of the UK’s leading retailers is a worse blow for very practical reasons – the fact that most foreigners are much, much larger than their Chinese counterparts and find it almost impossible to buy clothes and shoes in Chinese stores.

The immediate solution elsewhere in the world might simply be to order what’s needed online, but the number of online stores willing to risk shipping to China isn’t large. Anyway, an expat in immediate need of two pairs of good quality underpants, a couple of extra-large tees and a pair of shoes isn’t likely to want to wait several weeks for a delivery, and using a Chinese online shopping site involves the language issues again.

Many foreigners based in Chinese cities get round the issue by an annual run to Hong Kong, Singapore or other sartorially civilised hot spots where size isn’t a problem. Wearing your latest purchases in layers in an attempt to avoid customs duty on arrival back in China is all part of the fun, although stuffing overnight bags until the seams give way can get boring.
he one irreplaceable fact about Marks and Spencers in China isn’t anything to do with underwear, sneakers, sweaters or even the in-store cafes, it’s that a visit is an undeniable link with the home country for most Brits. Harried husbands dragged around the store or left in the café with a book whilst wives and kids run riot in the clothing and household departments look comfortably similar in Shanghai to their equivalents in London or Manchester.

No-one’s sure why M&S didn’t work out in China, as a huge number of potential customers initially made it very welcome. During its opening week, overcrowding caused accidents and a few injuries, seemingly not a good reason for commercial failure. An ongoing decision not to offer courier delivery for larger purchases might have contributed to its closure but, whatever the reason, this quintessential British retailer will certainly be missed by local expats.
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