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I tagged along on a Paris shopping spree with two Chinese ladies. One is the wife of a big private equity manager, the other a princess who was looking for retail therapy.
I mistakenly thought of myself as a guide for Paris, hoping to get them out of the stores and into the museums at some point. The ladies said they would only do so after they finished their shopping lists as follows:
1. Hermés bags: Dream bag is a light blue croc Birkin; short of that, any Birkin and as many as they can buy.
2. Black jackets: A couple from Chanel but also some interesting niche brands which are not sold in China.
3. Peony flower roots to be transplanted in the garden and seeds of rucola and other vegetables used in salads.
RELATED STORY: Click Here for Last Week's 'ChinaFile' Column >>
As it turned out, we went back to Hermès about five times in a period of three days to complete their shopping in one store alone. It kind of proved to me that there is such a thing as brand loyalty in China: Chinese customers are not keen to experience new brands; we just want a lot of what we know and have already. Birkins are bought as works of art, rather than a handbag. “I want to collect them,” said the wife of the financier.
In an attempt to show them something else, I took them to Merci, a new concept store. We browsed through the store. The ladies were very silent and did not even want to try on any clothes. They were impressed by the table linen but thought it would be too heavy to carry back to China. In the end, the princess bought a stone stove, an antique one on sale on the third floor. It will be packaged and shipped to her door-to-door. The store will handle details via e-mail with her assistant. This is the second thing I learned — big spenders from China want service, anything to make the process painless. When asked why she was buying a stove in Paris, she replied, “I just wanted it and it felt good that I could get it.”
Then the two ladies hit Le Bon Marché for black jackets. Not enough of a selection from Comme des Garçons was the first comment; not enough leather from Rick Owens was the second. Roaming throughout the store, the ladies ended up with no black jackets but six pairs of Repetto shoes and 10 Diptyque candles.
The ladies were unsatisfied with the result at Le Bon Marché, but were very happy that there were hardly any Chinese in the store and there were no lines at the tax refund counter.
After that, the ladies went to the Marais. One spent the afternoon in Azzedine Alaïa and came out with four dresses; the other one bought nine black jackets from Comme des Garçons. They both claim they found exactly what they were looking for, despite the fact they had barely heard of Comme des Garçons or Alaïa before.
As an observer, I came to the conclusion that Chinese luxury shoppers buy because they need retail therapy, especially women. They need well-known products from well-known brands. As for fashion, they are willing to venture out a little bit, but not much. In general, the luxury consumer just wants more of the same thing.
And as far as my attempt to drag them to see a museum, it was a total failure. “Why don’t they do art exhibitions in department stores? That way we can shop and look at the art at the same time,” one of them commented.