Amid the positive and stable growth of department stores across China, many Tier 1 city plazas have necessitated an upgrade due to consumer versatility and matured economies. The Balancing is a new multibrand retail concept by Chinese conglomerate Shanghai Bailian Group Co. - in 2017 they topped Fung Business Intelligence’s list of Chinese retailers with an operating income of 47.18 billion Yuan. Branded as an autonomous store within its mid-range department stores, The Balancing enables the group to reach a brand new luxury consumer atop its two million active customer base at three locations - the Oriental, Lilacs International Commercial Centre and flagship HKRI Taikoo.
State-owned Bailian’s new conceptual rebrand is overseen by fashion director Yvonne Gan. Hong Kong-born and having grown up in Canada, Gan boasts extensive global luxury experience (Gucci, Dior, and Ferragamo) and an indispensable eye for visual merchandising: “My first job was in Joyce as a multi brand buyer in the mid 1990s, so my background and my DNA is VM.” Of these sleek new retail spaces, buyer Gan explains, “We have to stay fresh and keep brainstorming. We merchandise daily and often by a feeling or a theme. Customers who go to Prada or Gucci know what they are looking for... Here, there are so many brands and messages so it needs to be refined.”
“In terms of designer by country and sales volume, more than 40% of our buy is coming from the UK”
This acuity extends to the brand mix too which has been radically distilled since Gan came on board - reducing from 260 to 160 emerging designers and global megabrands. Gan’s buying team attend most European fairs and showrooms, introducing roughly 10 new brands each season, which are then kept on for three to four seasons. Current bestsellers include a vibrant mix of Acne, Shushu/Tong, Maison Margiela and MSGM. “In terms of designer by country and sales volume, more than 40% of our buy is coming from the UK,” she adds, listing the likes of Marques Almeida, YMC, Paul Smith, Stella McCartney and Victoria Beckham as brands with healthy sales. Interestingly, while the buy is dominated by British brands, local Chinese designers (like Shushu/Tong) make up 5% of their selection; this year they are starting to work with Seoul’s Pushbutton as well as smaller, emerging Italian brands.
“The Balancing is only in its third season, but now we really understand our customers. It’s ‘target shopping’ - you don’t just pass by our locations. They are looking for something unique and of course, a great shopping experience.” Despite being a wealthy domestic consumer, Gan points out that incentive (events and launches) is still required as many superbrands are “slow to move outside of sale time.” In addition, introducing new brands to consumers is a priority, so the store has to constantly source and retail knowledgeable sales people: “We carry over 200 brands and sometimes even the juniors can’t remember all of them.” Gan identifies gaps in staff members’ product knowledge as a headache; something which has perhaps contributed to the stores slow start. “In the next two years we need to work hard on the brand mix,” she says. “But we have a brand new team and are refining the selections to consolidate messaging,” she continues.
In spite of these challenges leading to a cool uptake from luxury clientele, Bailian is resolute in its restructuring. In August, it will open the first luxury shoe concept store in China, featuring designers from Sophia Webster to Nicholas Kirkwood. The store will have an ‘open’ merchandising system, so all brands will be displayed together, and there are plans for more openings outside of Shanghai. “That’s more challenging for us in terms of logistics - China is not small! It also takes time to build a team, and we rather use local investors such as other shopping mall owners to help us make this happen,” she says. Despite these hurdles and admittedly slow sales, Bailian’s revenue and Gan’s unwavering vision will hopefully get the balance right.