Australian retailers reach out to Chinese shoppers

Be polite but not too familiar, display lucky symbols and take things slowly -- unusual advice for the frantic world of retail but Australian stores hope it will help lure cashed-up Chinese tourists.

As Sydney gears up to host one of the world's biggest Chinese New Year celebrations, officials are working to help struggling retailers use the key tourism event to set their cash registers ringing.

Consumer confidence has stalled in Australia, with households cautious about spending given the uncertain global economy, while an explosion in online shopping has hurt bricks-and-mortar stores.

In an effort to offset the impact, Sydney has established practical workshops to help businesses attract Chinese clients with advice ranging from employing Mandarin-speaking staff to using feng shui to attract shoppers.

"The numbers of Chinese tourists from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China are increasing exponentially," explained Sydney councillor Jenny Green at a recent "ChinaConnect" workshop designed specifically for retailers.

"So it's really important that our businesses here in Sydney cater to the needs of those tourists."

She said the workshops, where dozens of tourism operators, business owners and hospitality specialists gather to learn more about what Chinese tourists might want, are about giving retailers the skills to cater to their needs.

They cover cultural awareness -- such as Chinese sensitivities, customs and traditions; how to communicate more effectively with Chinese shoppers and how to tailor products and services to meet the needs of visitors.

Among the advice to shop assistants is to respect the elders and not deal exclusively with the person who speaks the best English, given that they may not be the one with the most buying power.

Experts also recommend translating signs, brochures and business cards, acknowledging Chinese New Year and other holidays and using the power of auspicious symbols, feng shui and gifts.

Green said there are signs that some retailers get the message, but there is also an awareness that more could be done to attract Asian visitors.

"I think, no doubt, that the retailers and the business people here would be very aware that that's a growing market, and they would be keen to tap into that," she said.

Chinese tourists and students come to Australia each year in the tens of thousands, and the government launched a global marketing campaign called "Nothing Like Australia" in mid-2012 in Shanghai to further boost business.

China is Australia's fastest growing and most valuable international tourism market, with visitors from the country more than tripling over the past decade, jumping from 190,000 visits in 2002 to a record 630,000 in 2012.

Tourism Australia believes the market could grow to be worth up to Aus$9 billion a year by the end of the decade, with Chinese visitors not only increasing in numbers but spending at greater levels.

In particular, Chinese tourists surveyed for the agency said they wanted to go shopping, particularly for souvenirs, with local brands and products highly rated.

"Now China has become more open to the outside, one of the things they are (wanting)... is to go for shopping," said Li Chen, who runs a business in Sydney and was attending the workshop.

"It's not only for tourism, or to look at the view, or the beautiful weather. Shopping was one of the key tasks for them to achieve."

Will Figueira, who manages the Red Bottle liquor store in Sydney's Chinatown, said the workshop had "really helped us understand a lot more about the mindset from where a lot of Chinese customers come from".

He said this has meant that his staff were not only better able to establish a rapport with Asian customers, but had also helped the business devise its marketing strategies.

"Including some Mandarin on our business cards, while seemingly only a small step, is taken as an extremely nice symbolic gesture by many of our Chinese customers," he said.

Knowing what to say, and what not to say, and understanding the concept of someone "losing face" by being publicly criticised or embarrassed, was also vital for good relationships with Chinese suppliers, he said.

"These sorts of things can be the difference between a positive outcome, and a not so great one," Figueira said.

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