China's battle of the shopping trolleys

Carrefour, Wal-Mart and Tesco are going head to head in the fight to corner China's massive and expanding superstore retail market.

Shoppers carry goods in a Carrefour store in Urumqi, China, on Friday, Dec. 28, 2007. Carrefour SA, Europe's largest retailer, may report the first quarterly sales decline in six years this week as French and Spanish consumers retrenched and growth slowed in China. Photographer: Jean Chung/Bloomberg News
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Carrefour, Wal-Mart and Tesco are going head to head in the fight to corner China's massive and expanding superstore retail market, writes Daniel Bardsley, foreign correspondent Just under two years ago, the French retail giant Carrefour made headlines for all the wrong reasons after protests broke out at its stores in China when the Olympic torch relay for the Beijing games was disrupted in Paris by human rights campaigners.

Many Chinese shoppers took the protests over Tibet as an insult and boycotted Carrefour, and their mood was not helped later that year when Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, met the Dalai Lama. Carrefour was the first major western player in the supermarket business in China, having opened its first store there in 1995, and it had a lot to lose: nothing less than second place in the Chinese hypermarket sales charts.

Carrefour's rapid expansion in China mirrors its growth in the Middle East, including the UAE. Carrefour has a joint partnership with the Dubai-based Majid Al Futtaim Retail, part of the Majid Al Futtaim Group, and together they have 37 supermarkets in 11 countries in the Middle East, among them the UAE, Egypt, Oman and Kuwait. They plan to open 10 more stores this year. While there were fears that Carrefour might be hit with a widespread and prolonged boycott, it seems that not enough consumers voted with their shopping baskets to cause the company lasting harm in China.

Last year the world's second-biggest retailer pressed ahead with an ambitious expansion programme, launching 22 stores in China, and this month said it would open a further 20 to 25 this year. "Because of the [Olympic torch and Dalai Lama] incidents, people stopped going, but after a while they returned," says Zhou Yu, a graduate student at Peking University who shops at a Carrefour near her Beijing home. "It's convenience really, and some of [the foreign supermarkets] have brands the Chinese stores don't have."

Carrefour now has 157 stores in China and annual revenues of 33bn yuan (Dh17.75bn) and its growth there sits in contrast to its fortunes in some other foreign markets. It pulled out of Russia last year, and has also abandoned Japan and South Korea in recent years. Chief among Carrefour's rivals is Wal-Mart. With 160 stores in China and annual sales of 45bn yuan, the US giant is the foreign market leader. The company opened 30 stores in China last year and plans to add dozens more this year.

A distant third is the UK's leading supermarket group, Tesco, which has 82 stores in China and last year pulled in 11bn yuan. Tesco was very much the late entrant, only opening its first store in China in 2004. Like the others, it is targeting rapid growth and is focused particularly on developing whole shopping malls in which it acts as the anchor store. But expanding across the country is no easy task, according to Mavis Hui, a retail analyst with DBS Vickers in Hong Kong.

"In China there are various provinces and in terms of demand for different merchandise, it can vary a lot," she says. "Localisation is very important." Although both Carrefour and Wal-Mart are now huge in China, their stores are not distributed evenly. "For example, Carrefour is pretty strong in Shanghai, but Wal-Mart has been very strong in northern China," says Natalie Zhu, a senior retail analyst at JLM Pacific Epoch in Shanghai.

"One China equals many markets. The Chinese market is very segmented in consumer behaviour and preference as well as local government and administration." As a result, the key to continued success, according to Ms Hui, is achieving the right tie-ups with local partners who can offer management expertise and local knowledge. "That's important in terms of local trust and merchandise," she says. The big players will probably need all the help they can get as they venture ever further into parts of China unused to international supermarket chains. Carrefour plans to open in Inner Mongolia next year.

"In the second and third-tier cities, in building large stores, it takes some time to let the store mature and turn a profit," Ms Hui says. The other side of the coin is that expansion into the more distant parts of the country allows operators to gain a foothold in areas with enormous growth potential for supermarket shopping, a contrast to the situation in mature markets such as the US and Europe, where every town and city already has large stores.

"In China, people are used to shopping in [small independent] shops, and now they're moving to hypermarkets. It's an upgrading of consumer behaviour," Ms Hui says. "China is changing faster compared to the other countries. China is on a continuous urbanisation." While the overseas supermarket chains have been hit occasionally by food scandals - concerns over poor quality or food that has passed its sell-by date have been raised - their very foreignness can work to their advantage in a market where consumer confidence is very fragile.

The attitude of Zhuo Wen, a 55-year-old retired government employee from Beijing, speaks volumes: "Chinese firms have a lot of problems [with] scandals," she says. "The foreign companies, they have strict measures to ensure food and other merchandise is good. They're more reliable and trustworthy." It is for this reason that Mrs Zhuo has a store card for Trust-Mart, a supermarket chain that originates in Taiwan but has been part owned by Wal-Mart for the past three years.

"They ensure the quality is good and they have a reasonable price," she says. But the Asian retailing powerhouses, as well as forming joint ventures with the western supermarket chains, have also expanded in their own right as supermarket operators, with the likes of Lianhua and Wumart providing stiff competition for the outsiders. Just as the local operators have taken the fight to the foreign brands at the supermarket scale, so the overseas supermarket groups are not shy to downsize and slug it out at the neighbourhood level. The Tesco Express mini-supermarkets, now common in Great Britain, can be found in China. No wonder that the then head of Tesco in China, Ken Towle, said last year the company's operations in China could eventually eclipse what it has back home.

"When you think of the sheer number of people here, the incomes and our commitment here, I think anything is possible in China," he said at the time.