Success story of a shop just for magazine lovers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 November, 2007, 12:00am

For magazine lovers, entering the Chaip Coin shop at Worldwide Plaza in Central is like being a kid in a candy store.

Though it measures only about 200 sq ft, it is the largest retailer of foreign magazines in the city, with about 1,400 titles from the more popular entertainment publications such as Britain's Hello and OK!, to business titles like Forbes and The Economist and special interest items on food, interior design, travel, computers, diving, music, hair styling and fashion.

Niche magazines about pet goldfish or dogs, golf or racing can also be found on the shelves along the walls.

The magazines come in different languages - French, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Japanese - though the majority are in English.

Located on the second floor of World-Wide House, the shop was co-founded by Wong Chung-pak, 62, and a friend in 1987. Mr Wong, his wife and their 28-year-old son, Chris Wong Kin-chung, have been running the shop as a family business since their partner quit in 1995.

Selling magazines may not be a typical job but it is Mr Wong's life-time occupation. Born in Guangdong province, he arrived in the city in 1958 as a 16-year-old and was put to work immediately in a relative's magazine shop in Central. 'It was a small shop selling magazines and toys,' Mr Wong recalls.

'It carried only about 200 titles but sales were good. That was before computers and the internet and there were not many places to buy magazines.'

When his relative retired in 1987, he set up shop in World-Wide House with a colleague, putting down HK$300,000 to buy the unit. That turned out to be the right decision, sparing the partners from rising rents.

With rental rates at some offices in Central increasing above HK$100 per sq ft, some small retailers pay well above HK$10,000 a month as rent.

'If we had to pay the rent, we would not be able to continue to run the business,' Mr Wong says.

The risks are low since he gets the magazines from about 10 agents, paying only 80 per cent of the cover price. The publications sell for HK$30 to HK$200 each, while unsold copies are returned to the agents for a refund.

Some 2,000 copies are sold every month to customers from Hong Kong and the mainland, and to expatriates who usually work in Central. Some purchase magazines for their own pleasure while others buy for their business needs.

'Some customers work in the fashion industry, so they buy magazines such as Vogue for reference. Interior designers like Architectural Digest, while hairdressers like to buy the hairstyle magazines,' he says.

Sales reflect the changing lifestyles of the magazine's readers. Computer magazines, for instance, appeared only in the mid-1990s and their popularity peaked in 2000 with more than 30 titles.

With the dotcom bubble bursting, the number of computer magazines has fallen to fewer than 10, Mr Wong says.

Some titles, such as those covering food and travel, are longer-lasting with a loyal following. The best-sellers in the past two decades have been the two British entertainment magazines - Hello and OK!

To build and keep a customer following, the storekeepers have to remember customers' names and their favourite titles, as well as recommend magazines that interest them. Some customers have been shopping at the Wongs' for 20 years.

'There are some new titles from time to time, but some were suspended after just two or three issues. Publishing magazines is not easy; the same goes for the ones who sell them,' Chaip Coin's founder says.

The golden era of magazine shops ran from the late 1980s to 1997, when the economy was good and the internet was not yet pervasive, he says. Business declined substantially after the Asian financial crisis.

When someone's income drops, magazines - certainly not an essential item - are the most likely to be crossed off the shopping list.

Even though the economy has improved and consumers have more spare cash for magazines, the shop faces another challenge - keen competition from convenience stores and bookshops, which also sell foreign magazines.

'The biggest challenge is from the internet, since many foreign magazines can be read on the web,' Mr Wong said. But when someone likes a photo in a magazine, that person is still likely to buy a hard copy, he says.

As a typical family business, Chaip Coin is open seven days a week, with family members taking turns manning the shop. The future will depend very much on whether the son wants to continue the business.

'I am still considering whether to take it as my career,' the junior Mr Wong says. 'Right now, I just want to help out my father; I don't want him to work too hard.'