Cracking China: Q&A With Rupert Sanderson

July 9, 2014/0/0
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Since debuting in Hong Kong in 2010 and mainland China this May, British footwear and accessories brand Rupert Sanderson has been hard at work cracking a market not traditionally associated with understated luxury. Boasting a loyal fan base of A-list celebrities and more than 100 points of sale worldwide, designer Rupert Sanderson’s eponymous 13-year-old label carries with it a strong track record of success.

Entering China at a time when its luxury environment is challenging, to say the least, and as over two-thirds of Chinese consumers make big-ticket purchases overseas, Rupert Sanderson hopes to tap the most sophisticated of sophisticated Chinese shoppers. Enticing well-heeled Shanghainese to buy locally, Sanderson has rolled out three collections exclusively for the new ifc Mall flagship, and has undertaken a deliberate, gradual expansion effort targeting craftsmanship-minded customers who subscribe to a “less is more” design philosophy.

To learn more about Rupert Sanderson’s Asia expansion, growing (and global) Chinese buyer base, and some of the challenges of tackling China, I recently caught up with Sanderson and his Asia partner, Bertrand Mak.

(RS: Rupert Sanderson; BM: Bertrand Mak)

With the boom in Europe-bound Chinese tourists, has Rupert Sanderson seen a natural uptick in Chinese customers in the UK and mainland Europe? If so, which products are they most interested in?

RS: We have seen an increase in Chinese customers and I think they are after very specific things when they come to Europe – they are incredibly well served, particularly in Hong Kong. There is a desire to buy iconic pieces that they can’t find or there is a price issue as well, which can get Chinese customers excited, so there are more Chinese shoppers, which we are delighted to see.

In your stores — whether in Hong Kong, mainland China, or Europe — are you finding that customers are already well acquainted with your brand, or just seeing it for the first time? If it’s the latter, how are you introducing shoppers to your history and heritage?

RS: We have just opened a shop in Shanghai, which is our third in the region (we currently have two in Hong Kong). A lot of awareness work has been done over the last three or four years in Hong Kong, so while we have good awareness in Hong Kong, we still have a lot of work to do in China. We are doing this store by store – the first of which is obviously in the ifc Mall in Shanghai, which is very high profile, it has good traffic and footfall, so that will help us build our name and awareness in that enormously important market. We are also doing marketing and hopefully getting some local celebrity endorsements to help build our awareness and what we stand for.

BM: When we opened our first store 4 years ago on On Lan Street, Central, Hong Kong, 95% of our customers have not heard of the brand. Today, I can say 95% of our local customers are well acquainted with the brand and our products. It’s important to note that the growth of our business in Hong Kong has been reliant on local customers from Hong Kong which takes up some 70% of our clientele. With our store at Elements, Kowloon, Shanghai ifc and the soon to open Harbour City, we are slowly tapping into the mainland Chinese market. Whilst our marketing and PR efforts tell the tale, the driver of our business is still very much word of mouth as our quality and unique product offerings really do speak for themselves. The “GOLD” line, which is only available at the stores in Greater China, has been extremely successful and we are witnessing an ever-growing appetite.

Despite the slowdown in mainland China’s luxury market, in recent months brands such as Michael Kors and Ann Demeulemeester — as well as Rupert Sanderson — have opened new flagships in China. In an increasingly crowded market, what will Rupert Sanderson do to stand out?

RS: What we have found is, well, two things – we have a very entrepreneurial and energetic local partner picking up on the subtleties of the different needs of the Chinese customer, which has stood us in great stead and we have made amendments to certain things for example last fits to suit a Chinese and South-East Asian foot. It is just small things, but important things that show that we are taking an interest in the customer.

We have also introduced innovative, new designs and been building a signifier, which is very important to the Chinese customer, something that is, in the old sense of the word is ‘branded’ but without being slavish to it. And so, to that end, our gold, gilded pebbles are increasingly becoming a stand out piece and sort of iconic footwear, so that helps. And that is how we are talking to the Chinese customer, in a way that hopefully, they will respond to.

You are already active on Chinese social media platforms like Sina Weibo and WeChat. Are you doing anything special to engage fans on these platforms, and how have they reacted so far?

BM: Prior to opening our second store in Hong Kong at Elements, Kowloon and Shanghai ifc, we came up with a series of interactive games with incentives to entice and engage our followers. Usually they are Q&As about the brand, and by tagging a friend and retweeting the posts, potential winners and his/her friends would be rewarded with special edition gifts or vouchers. We also actively update our social media platforms with new product arrivals, celebrity snapshots and editorial features, and would encourage the celebrities we work with to tag us on their posts to help boost awareness.

Rupert Sanderson released exclusive collections to celebrate the opening of the Shanghai flagship. Does the brand plan to tailor collections, or create more special limited edition items, for the Asia market in general and Chinese consumers in particular?

RS: We like to signify the opening of a new store with a specific shoe that is only available in that store or the introduction of a new line in that opening store. We do tailor the product to the market. What we’re trying to do is build a brand from the inside out, rather than necessarily projecting the European luxury brand model on to the customer because those European brands have a huge amount of history and advertising budgets as well as a big retail network in their own home markets. But we’re building this business using the Asian customer as a core of our activity, with their response. They love detail and luxury and craft, which are things that I hold very dear to my heart and ensure that they are core to the Rupert Sanderson offer.

BM: I am essentially the eyes and ears on the ground and by spending a substantial amount of time at the stores, all feedbacks from our customers are directly taken on board and considered. It’s through these interactions with customers that enabled us to develop exclusives such as tailored fits and specific collections available only for our customers in this part of the world.

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