Fewer foreigners, more sellers than buyers at Canton Fair

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 April, 2009, 12:00am

Like a bevy of young hopefuls in a beauty pageant, rows upon rows of shimmering and varicoloured motorcycles are on display in front of a gigantic television screen.

Dotting the rows of machines are several tables and chairs.

Only one of the tables has a tight cluster of people around it. Two sales representatives of the Chongqing-based Loncin Group, which claims having the highest export volume of motorcycles on the mainland, are in earnest conversation with a potential buyer from Nigeria.

Nearby three other sales representatives stare aimlessly at the television screen pitching the merits of various products with the most arresting images and music.

'I have been in the motorcycle business for 10 years and I have attended the Canton Fair since 2000. I have never before seen more sellers than buyers and more Chinese than foreigners. It is just bad,' says Robin Lee, who heads the company's sales delegation to the Canton Fair.

'The response is somewhat to be expected but I am still shocked by the dwindling number of merchandisers coming to the fair. I have been chatting with you for nearly 20 minutes now which shows how few inquiries we have because otherwise I would be busy answering questions rather than speaking to a reporter.'

Despite a number of unprecedented initiatives to lure buyers and manufacturers, the 105th session of the China Import and Export Fair, referred to as the Canton Fair, bears witness to the impact of the global financial crisis on business. Only 30,881 overseas buyers showed up at its opening last Wednesday - a 6.4 per cent drop from the previous session which was held in October last year.

The biggest slump was in the attendance of European and North American buyers. The number of merchandisers from European countries was down 40.67 per cent, while their counterparts from North America had a 22.75 per cent drop.

Organisers had sent a total of 800,000 invitations to overseas companies.

There was also a significant drop in exhibitor participation, with only 22,104 manufacturers joining the event, 237 fewer than in the previous show which was held within a month after the Lehman Brothers collapse.

The effects on buying interest were already evident then and the organiser's figures showed 174,562 buyers from 212 countries signed contracts worth US$31.5 billion at the autumn fair, a year-on-year drop of almost 17.5 per cent.

The trade fair, held twice a year, is one of three backed by the Ministry of Commerce. It is seen as a barometer of overseas appetite for Chinese-made goods.

In order to boost transactions, the organisers offered free air tickets, discounted hotel rooms and even free meals to frequent buyers and those from Fortune 500 companies, said its spokesman Mu Xinhai.

This year there was also an unprecedented decision to offer discounts on booth rentals of between 1,000 yuan (HK$1,134) and 2,000 yuan per exhibitor.

Mr Mu said the incentives to lure exhibitors and buyers cost an estimated 100 million yuan, 10 per cent of which was spent on overseas promotions.

Minister of Commerce Chen Deming, meanwhile, disclosed in the fair's official publication that buyers from the mainland's top 100 retailers were invited to attend, including the major department stores and leading supermarket chains, to help manufacturers open up the domestic market. It has a special zone designated for exhibitors and buyers to meet and negotiate.

While it remains unclear yet how much the special incentives have boosted buyer turnouts and business transactions, initial figures paint a pessimistic picture.

'The financial crisis will affect us, but how big the impact is going to be, for example, comparing this one with the previous session, I'm not sure,' said Wen Zhongliang, a senior foreign trade official at the Ministry of Commerce.

Tam Kwok-tim, who works for an electronics trading company in Hong Kong, said he attended the Canton Fair to see the latest products. 'I am from Hong Kong and coming here is close to no cost at all. But I don't intend to buy anything,' he said.