Hong Kong as a shoppers’ paradise is so far behind the times

Peter Kammerer says the city’s laggard mentality in pushing for a hi-tech future will take its toll in many ways, including when the global trend in online shopping hits the local sector in earnest

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 May, 2017, 1:55pm
UPDATED : Monday, 08 May, 2017, 9:48pm

Hong Kong generally lags behind in global trends. Economically, socially and legally, we’re living in the past. By how much is difficult to gauge, but, by some measures, it could be as much as a decade. If we don’t start catching up, we’re going to suffer big time.

The loss of the US$25 billion Alibaba stock listing to New York was a prime and costly example of how stuck in our ways we can be. Almost three years later, the strictly enforced “one share, one vote” rule that blocked the bid remains in place, even though exchanges elsewhere have realised the importance of the dual-class share structure to ensuring the growth of firms, particularly those in the tech sector. Beyond big business, consider how the refusal to adopt European standards on air quality is affecting health and reputation, how the well-being of workers and their families is undermined by a lack of standard working hours and what a substandard pension scheme means for livelihoods. And we’re not even talking about issues like gay marriage and marijuana that are being legalised elsewhere.

The half-hearted effort to push new industries has to be replaced by a mindset to fully embrace the hi-tech future

But let’s move onto online shopping, an area that smartphone-loving Hongkongers should have embraced. Getting up-to-date statistics is difficult, but a Consumer Council study from last year comparing figures for 2014 gives a good perspective. That year, 23 per cent of internet-using Hongkongers had shopped online in the previous 12 months, compared to 67 per cent of mainland Chinese, 69 per cent of Japanese, 73 per cent of Germans, 78 per cent of Americans and 81 per cent of Britons.

Hong Kong’s compact size and shop-packed streets may be behind the low take-up. But I’ve a feeling much of it is to do with not trusting online sellers. Hong Kong people love to window shop and see what they’re buying before they purchase. But that gets in the way of the experience that online provides of trying new products from the wider range available, often at a lower price.

E-commerce start-ups feed Hongkongers’ passion for shopping, but are they safe?

My sons long ago realised that, feeding their gym-rat lifestyles with supplements, equipment and clothing. So, too, have consumers elsewhere in the world, with increasingly dramatic effect on cityscapes. Online trade has become so engrained that shops are closing. The trend is especially noticeable in the US, where thousands of retail stores operated by big-name brands like Macy’s, Sears and Kmart, to name but a few, have already closed this year.

The same is happening in Europe, Canada and Australia; it’s inevitable when stores don’t respond quickly enough to customer demands on price, selection and fashion. And if the experience of my sons and their 20- and 30-something friends is any guide, it’s going to hit Hong Kong sooner rather than later. The impact to our economy won’t be huge as, by various estimates, the retail sector accounts for only between 1.3 and 3.9 per cent of gross domestic product. But with the Hong Kong Retail Management Association claiming that about 10 per cent of our city’s workers, or 260,000 people, are employed in the sector, there could be a huge impact on the labour force.

Why Hong Kong is a city in decline

Authorities seem oblivious; they’re still pushing Hong Kong as a shoppers’ paradise. The latest retail sales figures for March showing a 3.1 per cent rise on the same period last year, reversing a months-long drift, gives a false sense of security. But, like it or not, trends elsewhere eventually catch fire in our city and with an explosion of online shopping will come job losses for tens of thousands of people. The half-hearted effort to push new industries has to be replaced by a mindset to fully embrace the hi-tech present and future.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post