City’super was born in Hong Kong after Japanese department store Seibu exited the market

Founders focused on good food and wine

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 3:57pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 May, 2016, 3:57pm

Many customers buy imported food and wine at Hong Kong’s City’super but few would know the group of founders were closely involved with a chain of Japanese department stores.

In the 1980s high-end retail fashion and food markets were dominated by those Japanese operators. In 1990 Seibu department stores under a group management led by Masashi Ishikawa established its flagship store in the Admiralty district.

Japan’s economic downturn during that decade, however, led Seibu to leave Hong Kong and its other overseas markets. Ishikawa, though, had fallen in love with Hong Kong and did not want to leave.

He and other Japanese management, along with 14 local senior staff decided to create start-ups of their own in the city.

They considered too many other stores were selling luxury-brand clothes and too few were selling good food and wine. So the City’super concept was born.

But the 20-member founding group still needed a financial backer before their high-end mega stores could be launched.

It did not take long to find a supporter.

They convinced Masaaki Ogino, a Hong Kong-based Japanese businessman with textile manufacturer Fenix Group, about the future of their project. Ogino and his partners took just three days to back it.

The rest is history.

Twenty years on and City’super has become a household name for lifestyle stores selling top-quality meats, fruits and vegetables along with wine, beverages and other lifestyle products. It has brought in new concepts to shopping; it was the first adopt a bank queueing system, in which all customers form a line to be served by the next available cashier, and allows them to pay faster.

But such innovation and always trying something new may not always prove successful.

In 1998 Hong Kong Telecom introduced interactive TV for shopping on demand and City’super joined the project as a service provider to sell its products on demand through TV. That proved to be too much ahead of its time because internet speeds were slower 20 years ago and the it was not popular. The company exited the venture some years later and suffered a significant loss.

“The Lesson learned was that we might think twice jumping into new technology. But we don’t regret doing it. It was just a bit costly lesson,” City’super president Thomas Woo said.

The company’s current hot product, Cha Cha soft cream, had a bumpy start.

It formed a joint venture with Japanese partners to launch a traditional Japanese confectionery counter selling authentic Japanese sweets and ice-cream but it drew few customers. It lost money for a few years and the company once wanted to close it.

But a staff member suggested it should be given a six-month period for a final chance. The team eventually developed the popular Japanese green tea soft cream and launched it as a brand — Cha Cha — which now always draws a long queue of customers.

The company’s first batch of shops opened in Times Square in 1996. It now has four shops in Hong Kong, three in Shanghai and six in Taiwan.

Besides City’super, it has Log-On brand which sell stationery, travel accessories and beauty products. There are now 12 such outlets in Hong Kong, three in Shanghai and six in Taiwan.

It also operates the CookedDeli dining stores which offer international cuisine in Hong Kong and Shanghai.