First published in Essential Retail here:

The Lunar New Year, taking place this year on 5 February and marking the start of the Year of the Pig, is a huge deal for Chinese consumers. That also means it should be a huge deal for British retailers.

In recent years it has become an increasingly popular time for Chinese families holidaying abroad, not to mention an ideal time to target ex-pats and students living in the UK. And yet, too many retailers still struggle to make the most of this vast opportunity.

There was a time when all major department stores had to do was partner with tour operators to have busloads of Chinese tourists arrive at their door. But now affluent Chinese consumers are handling their own travel arrangements, and they often do so using recommendations from friends and family and from what they see on social and digital channels.

This complex and sophisticated market has ever-evolving and nuanced needs – so British retailers need to understand Chinese travellers’ journey planning process and leverage the right touchpoints with Chinese shoppers before, during and after they travel, with a digital and offline marketing strategy to match.

Where are Chinese consumers getting their information?

Of course, there are go-to social platforms many brands and retailers use to target those shoppers: WeChat and Weibo are the usual suspects and are especially powerful when paired with a targeted influencer strategy. Within the UK alone, there are dedicated Chinese news-based influencers, student community influencers and even retail-specific influencers highlighting where, when and how to shop.

They can more easily reach both inbound and domestic audiences. Not to mention that by targeting those already in the UK, retailers can establish routes back to the hearts and minds of friends and relatives back in mainland China.

There are other platforms, too. Dianping, for example, is a location-based community featuring user-generated reviews that a lot of shoppers use to identify the best places to spend when overseas.

It might also make sense to go straight to the source. If tourists are using online travel agents like Ctrip and Qunar to make their own travel arrangements, partnering with those sites can be a way to serve content directly to them pre-travel, at booking and in destination.

Is the UK welcoming enough?

When it comes to Chinese tourism – and shopping in particular – the UK is lagging behind. Paris is the European city they’re most likely to visit, followed by places like Venice and Berlin. London and the UK are disappointingly not at the top of that list even though ‘Brand Britain’ has so much that directly appeals to a Chinese audience – tradition, heritage, great education, art, creativity and, of course, the Royal Family.

So why is that? Some of it is down to a Visa policy that makes it awkward for tourists to visit multiple European countries and include Britain on the same trip, and a lack of vision on the part of the authorities. Amazingly, the UK Visa Application Form for Chinese nationals was for years only in English and has only recently become available in simplified and traditional Chinese.

Compare that to the welcoming embrace of France, where back in 2012 they rolled out the red carpet for arriving Chinese tourists and have been making continual efforts to welcome and engage with Chinese shoppers in Paris ever since.

That means British retailers will have to roll out their own red carpets if they want to attract Chinese shoppers. That could start with something as simple as making it easier to pay: studies suggest said that accepting Chinese mobile payment methods helps boost business for overseas merchants.

How do we engage at Lunar New Year?

However, payment is only part of the equation. A lot of brands and retailers still seem to throw together half-baked campaigns that may be ignored at best and deeply offend the Chinese audience at worst. They might even assume that a shiny Lunar New Year-themed product in a red and gold box and carrying an image of a pig is all that’s required.

But just as a Western shopper in December won’t buy their partner a luxury gift with a cheesy Christmas tree emblazoned across it, younger Chinese consumers are unlikely to be looking for gimmicky seasonal-themed products. Much more likely they’re looking to shop the core collection and have a first-hand engaging experience with the authentic British brand they have come to love. ‘Localising’ products for a Chinese audience often puts off the very consumers it was intended to attract.

Lunar New Year can’t be a last-minute consideration for retailers, as Chinese shoppers are too big an opportunity. When UK high streets are struggling, thoughtful and effectively-planned targeting of Chinese travellers could be the answer to retailers’ woes.

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