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Bloomingdale's Lays Out Welcome Mat To Chinese Shoppers

Feb 10, 2013
Originally published on April 7, 2013 8:04 pm

A number of luxury retailers are rolling out tactics this year to mark the beginning of the Lunar New Year. For Bloomingdale's in New York City, though, reaching out to Asian shoppers during the cultural celebration is a decades-long tradition.

The upscale department store's marketing strategy traces back to 1971, the year President Nixon lifted the U.S. trade embargo with the People's Republic of China. Immediately, Marvin Traub, then-president of Bloomingdale's, decided he wanted to sell Chinese goods in his flagship store on the Upper East Side.

"Bloomingdale's was the first store in the United States that had an event that was totally devoted to Chinese products and Chinese traditions and Chinese craftsmanship," says Michael Gould, Bloomingdale's current chairman and CEO.

The "China Passage" boutique Traub envisioned opened in the fall of 1971, and caused a sensation in New York. Customers poured in to buy housewares, crafts and even Mao suits and caps made on the mainland.

Now, Gould says, Bloomingdale's is just as interested in having sales go the other way. The store is attracting affluent visitors from Asia by creating a retail environment that caters to their interests and culture. Chinese tourists, especially, he says, have become as desirable in America as American tourists once were in Europe.

"All one has to do is walk the streets of Paris, or walk into Galeries Lafayette or Printemps, or even Harrods or Selfridges in London, and see how the Chinese have really gone there," Gould says. "You can see they've gone to where it's easy."

With visa processes now speedier for Chinese visitors, executives at Bloomingdale's are determined to draw them in the doors. While other stores recently have begun to woo Asian shoppers, Bloomingdale's remains a coveted and well-known destination among cosmopolitan Chinese because of its 40-year history with China.

Star Luxe, a bilingual and New York-based media platform, recently took its millions of Chinese viewers into the flagship store in Manhattan.

A reporter panned the camera to show off the store's welcome banners with Chinese calligraphy, scarlet floral arrangements and pop-up shops featuring everything from luxury leather goods — in red, for luck — to serving pieces in silver and gold.

Forty years ago, Bloomingdale's was a different scene when it asked Chinese manufacturers to adjust some of their items to appeal to American buyers. Now, it's making its own adjustments.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year. It is the Year of the Snake. And here in the U.S., we often refer to this as the Chinese New Year, but it's actually celebrated throughout the Asian world. And you can be sure there will be lots of snake stuff sold in marketplaces around the world. But today, we're going to look at a higher-end market.

As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates brings us the story of how some luxury retailers are targeting Asian shoppers, following in the footsteps of one big New York store that's been doing it for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF FANFARE)

KAREN GRISBY BATES, BYLINE: Back in the winter of 1972, Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit the People's Republic of China. The previous summer, he'd lifted the U.S. trade embargo with the Communist country. And immediately, Marvin Traub, the president of upscale department store Bloomingdale's, decided he wanted to sell Chinese goods in his flagship store on the Upper East Side.

MARTIN TRAUB: Bloomingdale's was the first store in the United States that had an event that was totally devoted to Chinese products, and Chinese customs and Chinese traditions and Chinese craftsmanship.

BATES: Michael Gould is Bloomingdale's current president and CEO. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Michael Gould is Bloomingdale's chairman and CEO.] He's proud that his store was one of the first to recognize how important it was to do business with the People's Republic. The China Passage boutique Marvin Traub envisioned opened in the fall of 1971 and caused a sensation in New York. Customers poured in to buy housewares, crafts and even Mao suits and caps made on the mainland.

Now, Gould says, Bloomingdale's is just as interested in having sales go the other way. So the store lures affluent visitors from Asia to shop there by creating a retail environment that caters to their interests and culture. Especially the Chinese, who have become as desirable here as American tourists and dollars once were in Europe.

MICHAEL GOULD: All one has to do is walk the streets of Paris, or walk into Galleries Lafayette or Printemps, or even Harrods or Selfridges in London and see how the Chinese have really gone there. You can see they've gone to where it's easy.

BATES: A speedier visa process for Chinese visitors is making it easier for them to come here. And Bloomingdale's is determined to make it easy for Asian visitors to spend here. Other stores recently have begun to woo Asian shoppers, but Bloomingdale's, because of its 40-year history with China, remains a coveted and well-known destination among cosmopolitan Chinese.

A reporter for StarLuxe, a Chinese-language luxury site, takes viewers into the flagship store in Manhattan.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BATES: The camera pans to welcome banners with Chinese calligraphy, scarlet floral arrangements and pop-up shops featuring everything from luxury leather goods - in red for luck - to serving pieces in silver and gold. Forty years ago, Bloomingdale's was asking Chinese manufacturers to adjust some of their items to appeal to American buyers. Now, it's making its own adjustments to draw in more Chinese.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.