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A British shopping mecca thrives on Chinese spenders

By Bai Ping | China Daily | Updated: 2014-12-13 08:01

When I learned about an ongoing British tourism promotion to invite Chinese travelers to name their favorite places on social media, I thought about things that might not be on the official list but yet are as appealing as Big Ben or Buckingham Palace.

One of them is the Bicester Village, the shopping mecca near Oxford that is besieged every day from morning until late evening by busloads of Chinese tourists who leave laden with shopping bags. A visit to the market is usually preceded by a perfunctory stroll around the colleges of the world-famous University of Oxford.

But many know their hearts are really in the numerous outlet boutiques of the world's leading fashion brands that are sold at a discounted price. They have probably scrimped on flight tickets, hotel rates and eaten lots of cheap zha yu shu tiao or fish and chips to save for the big day.

Preparations for shopping (whose Chinese translation literally means "bleeding struggle") at Bicester could have started weeks or even months ago, as they study previous posts and videos on the Web before they set their foot in England. While Chinese consumers tend to believe that the successful should buy socially visible products to indicate their higher social standing, most are born bargain hunters.

My friend Lisa who emigrated to Britain a decade ago from southern China and now specializes in serving Chinese customers in Oxfordshire, told me the market is also a barometer of Chinese social life, as her business has been down considerably this year presumably because of the anti-corruption campaign in China.

However, she also acknowledged that she still has a large, rich female clientele in China who correspond with her in the small hours (due to the time difference) about new arrivals and purchases. Although she never asked what they did, she suspected these were lonely wives who spent lavishly as a way to get back at their husbands.

But Bicester has yet to have a Chinese name that is "most fitting, amusing and memorable", as VisitBritain - in the promotion - wishes for some of Britain's most loved attractions as well as its lesser-known places.

Instead, many visitors who come back simply refer to it as "the discount street" near London. Its Chinese translation based on the English pronounciation sounds like "forcing one to die", which may be jarring to the ears of British promoters and retailers, but amusing to domestic critics.

Chinese shoppers have long been known to be big spenders in Britain. Numbers from VisitBritain show that in 2013, there were 196,000 Chinese visits with 492 million pounds ($770.65 million) spent, up 10 and 64 percent compared with 2012, respectively.

During the 2012 Olympics in London, Chinese travelers spent on average 203 pounds per purchase, beating the runners-up from the oil-rich United Arab Emirates by a whopping 10 percent.

Some may perceive lavish spending on luxury goods as a rich man's folly or a matter of personal choice. But young and flaunty Chinese travelers are also chastised for snapping up designer handbags, watches, clothes and other luxury products while overseas, even if that means stretching their finances. Tourism officials and researchers lament that Chinese tourists lack the sophistication and culture of those from more developed nations.

But at the heart of the issue are concerns that the spending can be wasteful because prestige-seeking consumers might ignore the intrinsic utility of their purchases, and extravagance can widen the divide between the haves and have-nots.

It remains to be seen if the shopping mecca will be on VisitBritan's list of 101 British landmarks that will be named by Chinese tourists and released in groups over the next 10 weeks. The campaign has varied themes, ranging from "royal" to "quirky" and "shopping/luxury" to "countryside".

If Bicester shows up, I hope netizens will give it a clever and meaningful name that really tells what people think about it. For example, some Chinese visitors have given the pounds the nickname pang zi, which in Chinese means "fatties". The nickname constantly reminds visitors that the prices are much, much bigger than they look.

Contact the author at dr.baiping@hotmail.com

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