Retail Times: Worlds collide when shopping in Shanghai

As China’s booming economy creates more consumers by the minute, the major cities there are on fire as far as growing retail destinations go, and as the largest city by population, Shanghai is at the hub of this. We sent our retail expert Karl McKeever, brand director of VM and brand delivery consultancy Visual Thinking, along to take a look.

The Bund is perhaps the most famous International address in Shanghai, being host to the city’s celebrated skyline. However, The Bund is an impressive thoroughfare in itself, with many historic landmarks and spectacular buildings including Sassoon House, The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Building (HSBC) and the Peace Hotel lining the waterfront area of central Shanghai.

It’s what lies across the water of the Huangphu River though that draws thousands of visitors each night to gaze in awe at the Pudong multicoloured flickering skyline beyond.

Here, a spectacular free light show is played out on the gleaming office towers of the Shanghai financial district. This is complemented by many illuminated riverboats that cruise up and down the waterway all night long. The combined effect is enchanting and no wonder this attractive backdrop provides the perfect setting for tourist ‘wish u were here’ photos.

Given the huge crowds that flock to this area each night, it’s unsurprising that The Bund is increasingly becoming the ‘must be’ place for international retail brands to open their latest flagship stores. Recent arrivals include Giorgio Armani, D&G and Ermenegildo Zegna.

On route to The Bund is the Nanjing Road, one of Shanghai’s best-known and busiest shopping streets.

This is where many European and American brands have their own stores or operate within one of the many malls in the neighbourhood including: Gap, Zara, Nike and Hollister. The latter, being located in the bewildering seven floor Raffles Mall that is a huge draw for local Chinese shoppers.

Personally, I found this neighbourhood to be claustrophobic and irritating and one of the few areas where the risk of pickpockets and safety was a concern. Also, as a western male, I was perpetually approached to buy a cheap iPad, Rolex or ‘sexy, sexy massage’!

Persistent harassment of this type is so infuriating and the Chinese authorities who, whilst keen to crack down on other forms of ‘social interaction’, should in my view, seek to make it a priority to outlaw this type of anti-social behaviour. There are, after all, only so many wristwatches that anyone needs!

Apple has recently opened a store close by in the newly upgraded Henderson metro station en route to The Bund, one of three in the shanghai area. Inevitably, being such a huge magnet, it has its own issues with street vendors trying to sell anything from toys to tour tickets as close as possible to its storefront.

Whilst this store has a good street presence, Apple’s most impressive shops are its huge subterranean branch in the Pudong area and the latest outlet in the Hong Kong Plaza mall development.

The Hong Kong Plaza mall is located in what is known as the heart of downtown Shanghai. Here brands such as Gap, Y3, Dior and Cartier come together in a sleek modern building that’s actually even more attractive on the outside than it is inside.

Here, the whole exterior facade is covered in micro LED’s creating a beautiful evening spectacle to rival the most alluring view from The Bund. The lighting theme continues down the street with what can only be described as the stunning ‘blue box’ Louis Vuitton building. This incredible sight will lift the eyes of the most tired shopper to marvel at the sheer beauty and brand impact.

The massive Time Square mall was closed for redevelopment at the time of my visit, advertising a re-launch date of Summer 2013.

Close by is the Super Brand mall with small branches of Sephora, Mothercare and Next. Not the nicest of malls, with an odd mix of foreign and local retail brands that rub shoulders incongruously together, this had a distinctly Chinese local feel, which may have accounted for the deep discounting and clearance activity at the said brands.

M&S’s latest Shanghai store is in the downtown area too. This massive store with 360 degree visibility is very smart indeed. Since the first M&S store opened here in 2008, this latest (and greatest) new addition brings total store numbers to five. Selling everything except furniture, Chinese citizens and expats alike can now buy all their favourite M&S goodies in one state of the art location.

I also visited the new mall at Yuan Fashion Garden. The developers here must have struck a very good deal or never visited the area before starting work! Imagine a semi slum-come-industrial area on one side and a spectacular Chinese tourist centre on the next, then stick a mini mall with all the main Inditex brands (Zara, Stradivarious etc.), H&M and Tesco metro slap bang in the middle and ‘hey presto – retail disaster!’. These shops looked to be close to closure after only very recent opening. The mall half deserted, remaining stores struggling by, and those open being dismal examples of their parent chains. Ouch!

Overall Shanghai has some of he most stunning man made visual spectacles in the world, but just occasionally there is a severe lack of planning and thought given, where worlds old and new collide in a way that is a little too uncomfortable, I would say, for many western shoppers. There is a clear demand for the best western brands can offer, but to reap the real rewards, I think that retailers need to consider locations much more before committing.

Read the original article on the Retail Times website here.