London and Paris compete to woo wealthy Chinese tourists

In battle of two cities, Paris draws way more of the mainland Chinese tourists shopping for luxury goods, but London is preferred for property

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 4:05am

London and Paris have been rivals for as long as anyone can remember. But there is a new front in the age-old conflict between western Europe's richest and chicest capitals: the hearts, minds and - most importantly - the wallets of Chinese tourists.

The battle is fought out in a flurry of Chanel handbags and Burberry gloves - and the winner gains something much more valuable than mere prestige.

French and British luxury firms are putting aside any concerns they have about the perceived lack of sophistication of Chinese tourists, not least because they account for "a third of their total sales in Europe", according to Yuval Atsmon, a partner at consultancy McKinsey in London, who previously worked in China.

The main target for both capitals is the 11 per cent of Chinese tourists who, according to recent research by Hurun Report and ILTM Asia, take at least three overseas trips per year and spend more than US$10,000 on each holiday - excluding the cost of flights.

Chinese spending in the West End of London was up 50 per cent in May last year on the year before, according to Jones Lang LaSalle research. At London's Heathrow Airport, Chinese shoppers account for less than 1 per cent of total traffic, yet are responsible for nearly a quarter of all sales of luxury goods, according to UK government data.

The British capital has long experience of rolling out the red carper to mega-rich foreigners - making it a favourite for everyone from the oil-rich Arabs of the 1970s to the Russian oligarchs of more modern times.

Boutique travel agency Hurlingham specialises in tailoring London visits for wealthy tourists, including Chinese officials. Managing director Andrew Barker says visitors will be met with a luxurious Mercedes-Benz limousine at the airport and enjoy private visits to top museums before settling down to exclusive fashion shows featuring "five to six well-known promising designers" as they settle back, sip champagne and decide what to buy.

Among the first ports of call for most Chinese visitors is Harrods, the eminent Knightsbridge department store that has served royalty and nobility since 1834.

"It appeals to their need to display status through a typically baroque British approach to luxury," says Susana Campuzano, director of the IE Business School's luxury programme and founder of the consulting firm Luxury Advise.

However, they show little in common with the ostentatious, big-spending characters of Kevin Kwan's hit novel Crazy Rich Asians. In fact, Barker notes: "They are direct, price-sensitive consumers."

A favourite with many of Barker's customers is Bicester Village, an outlet an hour's drive from London offering high-end clothing and accessories from brands such as Burberry or Bottega Veneta for one-fifth of the price in China.

But try as it might, London's exclusive hotels, world-class shoemakers and fine, gourmet cuisine just aren't enough to compete with French savoir faire in the Chinese market.

"Luxury was born in France," as Campuzano puts it.

For Claudia D'Arpizio, a director responsible for luxury brands at consultancy Bain & Company, affluent Chinese love to surround themselves with "the best of the West" - and prefer to do so by experiencing the brands in the countries they come from.

"They have also come to appreciate the expertise, service advice and sophistication of the staff at exclusive boutiques in Europe, who are better trained to explain to their clients the history of the brand," Atsmon says.

The last five years have seen China's wealthy evolve from hunters of big brands to gatherers, who like to experience luxury.

Campuzano says that means Chinese consumers now demand to know not just about the brand, but about the high standards involved in the design and crafting of its products.

"Store salespeople should spend time with these clients explaining to them all they need to know in the more intimate environment of a private room, because if you rush them, you'll lose them all," Campazano warns.

But how can London and Paris storeholders identify a wealthy Chinese customer who is eager to listen and has the deep pockets needed to buy? Campuzano, who advises luxury shops and department stores, underscores that "their staffs are skilled to sound potential clients out with appropriate questions before ushering them into a private VIP room".

However, asking smart questions is not enough. High-end firms are busy digitising information on their best clients, which they could use to sound a red alert when a super-rich lady from Shanghai passes through the doors of one of their stores in Europe.

Brands such as Chanel or Louis Vuitton have also partnered with top hotels in order to make them lead deep-pocketed visitors straight to their lavish shop windows.

One area where Chinese would prefer to spend their money in London, rather than Paris, is in the housing market. London accounted for 80 per cent of all Chinese property investment in Europe over the past five years, according to a report by LaSalle and Real Capital Analytics.

Buying prime property is sometimes used as a fast track to get a visa: the UK grants residency permits to Chinese owners with over 20 million yuan (HK$25 million) in net assets in the nation, provided that they also borrow 10 million yuan from a local bank.

Hurlingham's Barker says he is more open to introducing Chinese clients to sellers of exclusive properties than a French agent might be.

"They will find London's luxury far more accommodating than that of Paris," he says.

Additional reporting by Toh Han Shih