A quick glance around our international airports, museums, heritage sights and famous retail emporiums leaves no doubt that Chinese people love visiting Britain – and we love their business. We’re encouraging them to choose to visit Britain in so many ways – and making it easier for them to do so. Just this week Heathrow announced new direct services to Qingdao, Changsha, and Xi’an.
Chinese shoppers spend over £1bn per annum in the UK (an average of £2,174 each per stay) – and especially love shopping in London and at our airports. Retailers such as Harvey Nichols, Harrods and World Duty Free all do their best to make them feel welcome and make it easier for them to shop.
Whilst Chinese shoppers love ‘the big brands’, they are very canny and shop around to get the best value. These luxury retail brands recognise the importance of investing to be ‘retailer of first choice’ e.g. providing Cantonese and Mandarin-speaking staff, offering tailored promotional incentives, and accepting China Union Pay, the popular Chinese payment service. Have you noticed the Mandarin (and Arabic) way finding signs and announcements at London Marylebone Station to help visitors taking the train to Bicester Village outlet centre?
Our research experience with these Chinese shoppers, shows that they value these efforts to engage them, and are more inclined to spend in those retailers as a result.
But as I look around at food-to-go eateries and restaurants in our travel hubs and around London, I see unharnessed opportunities to become destination brands for our Chinese visitors.
I wonder how welcome we make them feel, or how easy we make it for our Mandarin speaking visitors to understand which brands are likely to cater for their tastes - or indeed to choose between the array of sandwiches, wraps, salads, and hot pots which are laid out to tempt us? How do they differentiate between our vegan, seafood and other deli delights? Faced with a menu in Mandarin I wouldn’t know where to start!
Is it down to Google Translate to provide that final level of reassurance and clinch the purchase decision? Should we be using QR codes on menus to provide links to translated menus? For some Chinese consumers who don’t read English, the easiest solution is to send a photo of a menu to their friends at home to ask for advice on what to eat. Others may find comfort in brands which are familiar to them in China e.g. KFC, Starbucks, Pizza Hut.
Whilst retailers’ efforts to influence ‘in the moment’ decisions are of great importance, Chinese shoppers are highly influenced by recommendations from peers and opinion leaders on social media sites like WeChat. These kinds of initiative to earn retailer preference and prompt planned visits amongst peers should definitely be embraced.
Many Chinese consumers enjoy western food – the younger independent travellers tend to be more ‘foodie’. They like exploring new cuisines and dishes, sharing their experiences with friends at home via their smart phones and WeChat - just like they message about the latest fashion brands, they like to share their food experiences.
With an increasing number of Chinese tourists travelling to the UK independently rather than in tour groups, there seems to be an opportunity for food-to-go outlets and restaurants to understand more about how to create brand preference amongst this consumer.
Big brand retailers have already embraced this approach, because they know it pays to make their stores ‘retailer of first choice’ for Chinese tourists.
Caroline Thompson Associates is a boutique qualitative research consultancy with specialist expertise in travel and retail markets.