The falling euro has sent many Chinese shoppers abroad in search of deals. Those who can’t swing a trip to Paris now have an alternative -- luxury discount malls.
Operators Value Retail and Fingen Group are rolling out high-end shopping centers that go beyond mainstream malls by offering discounts on brands from Armani to Valentino. There are as many as 80 outlet malls across China now and an additional 100 will open in the next five years, CBRE China estimates, which will help luxury-goods makers unload excess inventory as growth slows in the world’s second-largest economy.
Kering SA’s Gucci and Hugo Boss AG are among companies relying on discounts to reverse declining Chinese sales amid a clampdown on graft, according to Bain & Co. The euro’s drop this year has allowed Chanel SA and LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA’s TAG Heuer to lower prices in their Chinese stores this week.
These luxury outlets, or “villages,” featuring European-style piazzas and stores nestled inside medieval castles, target middle-class consumers who can’t afford to shop abroad or at full-price stores in China. Over the next decade, they will drive growth in the $16 billion market in China, Exane BNP Paribas predicts.
Take Yuxing Dan, who works at a Chinese law firm. Dan once couldn’t afford expensive luxury goods such as Bottega Veneta wallets and Ugg boots. Then a designer outlet opened nearby and ever since he’s been shopping there.
“A lot of Chinese people aspire to buy luxury,” said Dan, 25, browsing recently for Coach Inc. bags at Value Retail’s outlet in Suzhou, about an hour by car from Shanghai. “I buy what I can afford.”
Fingen, based in Florence, Italy, opened its second Chinese outlet in Shanghai in January to add to the five it operates in Italy via a joint venture with developers McArthurGlen Group and Richardson Development. The company plans at least five more by 2017, each offering discounts on more than 100 brands in one place.
“Chinese people are price sensitive but they spend,” said Maurizio Lupi, managing director of Fingen’s Florentia Village. Its outlet in Tianjin features gondolas, fountains and porticos “so people can make a trip to Italy without going to Italy,” he said.
With few similar malls in China, there’s a lot of room for growth, according to Vincent Lui, a Hong Kong-based partner at Boston Consulting Group. That helps explain why Warburg Pincus and L Capital, a fund backed by LVMH, recently invested in Sasseur Cayman Holding, which operates four outlet malls in Chongqing, Hangzhou and Nanjing.
“It’s the first time we’ve invested in something like this and we believe that outlet malls will keep growing,” Ravi Thakran, chairman of L Capital Asia, said in a March 17 interview in Singapore.
LVMH fell 1.3 percent to 168.6 euros at 4:37 p.m. in Paris today. Kering fell 1.7 percent to 193.8 euros, and Hugo Boss rose 1 percent to 117.4 euros in Frankfurt.
Lower prices aren’t enough to attract customers, according to Boston Consulting Group’s Lui. Purchases made at discount malls “are still big ticket items for most Chinese consumers so the experience needs to match,” he said. Customers who value convenience, store design and service spend twice as much as those that don’t, according to BCG estimates.
“Consumers don’t want the cheap China version,” said Value Retail Chairman Scott Malkin. “China looks at the West and says, ‘We want what you have.’ ”
Since opening in May, average transaction values for fashion and luxury brands at Value Retail’s Suzhou Village exceed $700, according to the company. That’s higher than what those brands generate at the operator’s outlet in the U.K. With 80,000 visitors over Chinese New Year, Value Retail estimates it will welcome 4 million people to Suzhou this year. The company will complete another “village” at Shanghai Disney before year-end and at least three more in China eventually.
To be sure, the wealthiest consumers will continue to shop overseas because of the prestige of doing so, according to Avery Booker, a partner at consultants China Luxury Advisors. Goods sold in Europe are currently at their biggest-ever discount to the same items in China because of the euro’s decline, according to Exane BNP Paribas. Chinese travelers represent more than 25 percent of luxury spending, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.
Still, the appeal of Gucci and gondolas adds up to a “huge opportunity” for luxury outlets and the brands they sell, said Booker.
(An earlier version of this story corrected the opening date of a Value Retail shopping outlet.)