Retail travels

Explorer - Hong Kong

By Karl McKeever | 19.04.19

Retail Offline


Shopping in the busiest areas of Hong Kong, one thing is clear: retail here is still traditional – stubbornly anchored in the past. In one of the most advanced, dynamic, renovated, pampered retail destinations on the planet, this is a true paradox.

Despite the fact that free Wi-Fi is available everywhere, online shopping is here but far from prevalent. There’s an almost total absence of instore messaging that we have come to expect back home, promoting the likes of Click and Collect. Even for that said to be ‘all essential brand experience’ element, it’s rare to find an Internet connected device instore, unless you’re in an Apple store,

Instead, Hong Kong is superlative for those seeking ‘old skool retail’. Be that from tiny, gaudily lit, intensely merchandised local brand favourites and family shops within the sprawling, scruffy lanes of Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Way. Or the countless designer outposts located within spruced shopping malls, each with their consistent and lavishly fitted out international brand concept interiors.


Are these stores busy? The answer: very. All of them, all day long.

It’s exciting to be part of. Being here is like being back in UK/USA retail of the 1990’s. In the shops, there are queues to try things on, and to pay. Shops with many staff serve, greet, answer customer queries, replenish, and ‘sell’ stuff. And, at the end of each day they make their shops ready to do it all again tomorrow.


One thing that Hong Kong does not do well is retail innovation. Another paradox. The culture and economics doesn’t make it easy for brands to test or embrace radical change here. The cost of operations means brands play safe, whilst seeking to benefit from great volume.

Contrast this to the UK market where it’s said that we eat ‘retail newness for breakfast’: those plucky Brits are at it again… the early adopters, the experience junkies, and the thrill seekers. With such granular segmentation and shopper profiling for everyone, there is a concept to suite all kinds of fishes, in ever smaller and smaller ponds.

What works best in Hong Kong is the formulaic, the safe, the tried and tested brand outpost.

When spending as much time as I do visiting stores, here, there, here again, and everywhere some more, you quickly see that what works best in Hong Kong is the formulaic, the safe, the tried and tested brand outpost. Strip away the marble and gloss and Hong Kong could be accused of being somewhat timid. Could and should it look to push and profit from brand creativity much harder? Perhaps.


Maybe it’s because I’ve recently celebrated a birthday, but my time in Hong Kong left me feeling nostalgic or sensing and feeling something more fundamental to be true. The realisation that, in the endless quest for the ‘next and the new’ (and apparent sophistication), countless Western brands have simply mucked up their once highly successful and profitable retail business models and store operations.

In the race to embrace online retailing, and its perceived easy profits, so many big brands have, in reality, shot themselves gloriously in the foot. By offering shoppers the new, easy and convenient alternative, at the same time they have simply helped to give shoppers a different reason and method to shop, and stay, comfortably at home.

…money could have been invested in refurbishing its tired retail stores.

Will Marks and Spencer’s decision to wrestle the Ocado deal away from Waitrose – at a time when the growth in online grocery purchase is said to have stalled and remains stubbornly unpopular with older shoppers (the brands core audience) – turn out to be one meal deal to avoid at all costs? Especially when that money could have been invested in refurbishing its tired retail stores, and really setting about to improve the offer in its flagging general merchandise business.

Sales in John Lewis’s stores are similarly under pressure. Ask its Partners (and they should know), what they think the problem is and many will say that online is damaging their John Lewis stores. Then there’s Next. It is a fundamentally excellent retailer and hailed as an online retail darling. Yet it too seems unable to stem the decline of falling sales, which has doggedly set in within its own retail stores – something that are, I believe, wholly self-inflicted wounds. Instead of simplifying and improving store presentation, Next stores are now treated like ‘fancy warehouses’, carrying too much stock from its online offer. More tightly edited, attractive stores are what delivered success before, and I’m confident would again – retro thinking indeed.

For now, online remains a path that Primark has chosen not to follow. Judging by the public’s response to its latest and world’s biggest Primark store in Birmingham, they seem to be on to something and doing okay without the need, or distraction of online sales. It does make you think.


So why visit Hong Kong if it’s not to experience revolutionary retail? Put simply, for the buzz instore – the bright, hedonistic, spectacularly lavish, and for the gritty, grotty and dodgy parts, too. It’s normal. But it’s intense. Relish its scale, enormity and beating heart. Go home exhausted, broke and with tired feet, feeling a little uplifted with the contents inside your shiny designer carrier bag. And, don’t regret one minute of it.

See more inspiring retail images from Hong Kong here


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