As I see it

Retail Review: Abercrombie & Fitch, Eslite Bookstore

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 September, 2012, 1:26pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2012, 12:01pm

On 11 August, Abercrombie & Fitch made landfall in Hong Kong. It is the label’s fourth store in Asia after Tokyo, Fukuoka and Singapore. The American retailer broke commercial real estate records by paying a whopping HK$7 million per month for a spot at the iconic Pedder Building, replacing long-time tenant Shanghai Tang. From now on, Pedder Street will never look, sound or smell the same. Everything about A&F is in-your-face and over-the-top: a gigantic male nude poster covers most of the building façade, dance mixes blast from the sidewalk loudspeakers, and the unmistakable, overpowering scent -- some say stench -- of its fragrance can be smelled several tram stops away. Central has a new theme park.

A&F’s publicity stunts began long before its official opening. For weeks, an open-top double-decker carrying a bus-load of male models wearing nothing but red shorts and flips-flop circled the city. The roving beefcakes then returned to Pedder Street for a pre-opening media event, where they waved at pedestrians from the store windows like Disney characters without clothes. The charm offensive seemed to have paid off. During the first week, hundreds of eager shoppers lined up outside despite the 34-degree heat. Even the police had to be called in to keep peace. Hong Kongers can be such gluttons for novelty.

But I have no right to criticize. I was one of the lemmings who headed for the cliff. I visited the flagship on a Wednesday afternoon so I wouldn't have to wait in line like some crazed teenage girl. Though smaller and narrower by comparison, the four-floor retail space feels like any A&F store in the U.S. There is the same shirtless greeter standing by the entrance and the same homoerotic mural depicting young men playing some sort of water sport. So much emphasis is placed on the male body that you would be forgiven for thinking that they only sell men’s clothes. Considering that one in three Americans is obese and most folks back home can’t fit into any of its tight-fitting clothes (let alone look good in them), the label is not without a sense of irony.

Like their counterparts in America, the staff at A&F Hong Kong are decidedly unhelpful. They can be found check themselves out in front of the mirror instead of assisting customers. The staff can be unruly too. At one end of the store, a male clerk was busy exchanging phone numbers with two giggling girls. At the other end, new hires were being reprimanded by their American supervisor for wandering around the store. The manager with a Midwest accent yelled: "come on, guys, you can’t shop at the store. Y’all work here!" The boys begrudgedly returned the merchandise to the shelf and started folding clothes tossed all over the place by equally unruly customers.

Everything at A&F Hong Kong costs 25% to 30% more than they do in America. For instance, a T-shirt in Hong Kong sells for HK$340 (vs. US$35 in America) and a polo shirt HK$740 (vs. US$75 in America). Both the dim lighting and loud music are designed to cloud your judgment and distract you from checking the receipt at the cashier. If you want to own something with a moose logo, you are better off asking your friends to bring it back from the States.

Despite its high prices and narcissistic staff, A&F is a welcome addition to the Central shopping scene. It is a store like no other store. It is a Garden of Eden where Adam has a six-pack and puts on too much cologne. It is a dance club where head-bobbing, hip-swaying partygoers blur the line between runway models and Greek gods. Above all, it is an embodiment of America’s obsession with youth, beauty and unattainable body image. As a study on the American pop culture, the A&F flagship is well worth a visit.

Retail Review: Eslite Bookstore

The arrival of Eslite Bookstore in Hong Kong, its first store outside its native Taiwan, is one of the city’s most anticipated retail events this year. In addition to pleasing book lovers, the store has injected a much needed dose of culture to the area. Causeway Bay is just one Gucci or Chanel away from becoming a giant duty-free shopping arcade for Mainland tourists.

The megastore takes up three floors – from 8/F to 10/F – at the brand new Hysan Place. Three sets of enormous, unidirectional escalators take shoppers from the first level atrium directly to the bookstore in mere minutes. Kudos to the architect who designed the mall. The 8th floor carries bestsellers, new arrivals and children’s books. The 9th floor, my favorite of the three, is dedicated to fiction, literature, history and philosophy. There is also a classical music corner with several listening booths. The 10th floor is taken up by magazines, travel guides, investment manuals and public exam references. That floor draws the biggest crowds because Hong Kongers tend to be practical readers. In every section, English titles are mixed in with Chinese ones, an arrangement that has its pros and cons. Scattered over the multi-story space is a stationery shop, a restaurant and a Taiwanese tea bar. During the first few months, the bookstore is opened around the clock every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

As is the case for most Chinese language books, Taiwanese books – which make up the bulk of the stock at Eslite – each have their retail price printed on the back page. By comparing the original price in NT$ and the actual sticker price in HK$, shoppers can easily calculate the retailer’s mark-up. I did a quick check and concluded that all books are marked up by about 30%. For instance, China – A Macro History (《中國大歷史》) by historian Ray Huang (黄仁宇) sells for NT$280 (or HK$72 using the current exchange rate) in Taiwan but HK$93 in Hong Kong. Feeling short-changed, most shoppers are there to browse rather than buy and treat the place like a library. And to those who don’t care much for reading, Eslite is the latest tourist destination or simply a comfortable place to hang out in. Cynics are already calling the 24-hour bookstore an air-conditioned shelter for the homeless.

Despite all the hoopla about the newcomer, many readers in Hong Kong still prefer to shop at those “upstairs bookstores.”  Tucked away on the second or third floor of old tenement buildings on Lockhart Road and in Mongkok, these mom-and-pop stores offer a 20% discount on Taiwanese books all year around. Contrary to dire predictions, they will likely survive the onslaught of a formidable competitor from Taiwan. The real endangered species, on the other hand, is local chains like Joint Publishing (三聯書店) and Commercial Press (商務印書館). They need to pay sky-high rent for street-level retail space and at the same time lack the resources to compete with Eslite in size and in product variety. Over time, as their market share continues to erode, the local chains will be relegated to selling only secondary school textbooks and Mainland publications. Eslite has no interest in competing in either market.

Those who have visited Eslite’s Xinyi (信義) flagship store in Taipei know the joy of spending a relaxing afternoon in a spacious environment and being surrounded by nothing but books. By contrast, a common complaint about the new Hong Kong store is its narrow aisles and suffocating crowds. Shopping there, as is anywhere else in Causeway Bay, is stressful and sometimes downright unpleasant. Hopefully the crowds will subside after the novelty wears off and shoppers realize that it is just a bookstore after all. Only then will Eslite become what it is meant to be: a haven for true book lovers. Following the popularity of the Causeway Bay flagship, the retailer may well be planning a second store on the Kowloon side, perhaps in that other giant duty-free shopping arcade for Mainland tourists: Tsim Sha Tsui.