Pushing the Red Envelope: The Business of Chinese New Year

By Tom Parker

As politicians and business leaders host Chinese New Year functions across the country, most will attempt to conclude their speeches with the standard saying of gong xi fa cai (恭喜发财 in Mandarin) or gong hey fat choi (Cantonese), meaning ‘may you have a prosperous new year.’ Many non-Chinese are fascinated by the inclusion of fa cai (发财) in this cultural offering, a term that literally translates into ‘expand your wealth’ or ‘get rich.’ Coupled with the traditions of handing out hong bao or red envelopes (紅包) filled with money to friends and relatives, there is no hand wringing over the commercialisation of this Chinese celebration - unlike Christmas.

Chinese New Year is big business in Australia. 

In 2016, an estimated 200,000 tourists forwent family duties and packed their bathers to spend the Spring Festival under the Australian sun. Although unsuspecting surfers may have been caught on iPhones by tourists waving selfie-sticks, it was the shopping that caught most Australian retailers off guard. 

According to a survey conducted by Hong Kong-based investment bank CLSA on the preferences and behaviours of Chinese travellers, Australia was ranked as the 15th best destination for shopping. In Australia, the average Chinese tourist will spend on average $8,000 per visit. This is nearly double that of overseas visitors from other nations. According to Chinese consultancy firm CBM (Cross Border Management), at least $2,500 of this figure will go toward retail consumption.

The CBM report showed Chinese people spent the most in Australia during peak travel periods including Chinese New Year, Chinese summer school holidays and at Christmas.

In 2016, a number of retailers offered special Chinese New Year sales and special-edition monkey themed products for the gift giving season. David Jones partnered with UnionPay, China’s preferred point of sale payment method, to offer $100 gift card for every $1,000 in store UnionPay purchase.  Westfield Sydney CBD store provided Mandarin speaking staff, signage, and cloak rooms to make shopping easier for Chinese customers during the Lunar New Year, while Swarovski, the lead glass crystal company undertook a specific New Year campaign based on research that suggested 82% of Chinese travellers view shopping as their number 1 priority.

Chinese shoppers are sophisticated and digitally savvy, and frequently research products prior to purchasing and seek personal recommendations through group orientated social media channels such as WeChat. Some Australian brands and retailers are using WeChat to connect to these shoppers with offers and information in Chinese. 

Global fashion icon UGG is using a WeChat influencer campaign to provide discounts and drive Chinese shoppers to their concept stores in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane during the 2017 Chinese New Year. Melbourne Central shopping centre will launch its WeChat account during the Year of the Rooster with a one day shopping event featuring a Golden Egg hunt, K-Pop dancing lessons and special Chinese New Year offers from tenant retailers including Kit-Kat, MAC, Kiehl’s and Sephora. 

Public Chinese celebrations in Australia can be traced back to the gold rush era of New Gold Mountain xinjinshan with Chinese dragons appearing in Castlemaine in 1867 and Beechworth in 1874 for community fundraising events and pagan processions for Easter. In 1901, the Chinese community lobbied successfully to be included in the Federation celebrations, creating a Chinese Citizens' Arch across Swanston Street, and including two dragons in the famous procession. Although, ironically and sadly, one of the first acts passed by the new Australian Federal Government was the Commonwealth Naturalisation Act, designed to restrict non-European immigration to Australia. This ‘White Australia Policy’, forced celebrations including Chinese New Year to be more insular and centred around temples such as those created by the See Yup Society until the nation was comfortable promoting multicultural community voices in the 1980s. 

Melbourne’s Chinatown is the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the western world and in 1979 reinstated the dragon procession, which sits at the centre of a revitalised annual Chinese New Year celebration. Sydney’s festival starting in 1996, now stretches from Chinatown to the Sydney Harbour and attracts over 1.3 million people making it the third largest yearly event in Sydney. Chinese New Year is now celebrated in every Australian capital city and many regional centres such as Bendigo. It is fitting that just as Australia’s Chinese population was over 3% during the pre-Federation gold rush, the 2016 Census is expected to reveal over 1 million Australians identify as having Chinese ancestry or roughly 4% of the population. If you add the 1.4million Chinese tourists and 50,000 international students, which make up 26% of Australia’s total intake then you have a community that deserves market segmentation beyond just Chinese New Year. 

Chinese market segmentation requires a deeper understanding of what Chinese shoppers are seeking and needs to be led by insights rather than gut feel. Chinese themed visual merchandise during Chinese New Year is good reflection of the importance of the Chinese community in Australia but being China-savvy rather than China-ready means investing in Chinese marketing channels such as WeChat. In addition, special edition products need to be extended beyond the Chinese New Year to capture the attention and patronage of Chinese shoppers that also need to be supported by payment gateways including UnionPay, WePay and Alipay. Mandarin speaking staff may be hard to find or not suited to every retail experience and while the ability to communicate in Chinese may assist in closing sales it is not as important as the attitude of being open to the China opportunity - beyond Chinese New Year.  

Original article published in The Asian Executive

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