Retailers hope Chinese New Year sales bring good fortune

It may be the Year of the Snake but there are 20 adorable panda bears greeting shoppers this week at Hong Kong's ifc mall as they pick up last minute gifts for Lunar New Year.

The animals aren't real but the lifelike pandas are still a hit with locals and tourists who pose for photos with the bears.

"We try and do things that are relevant to Chinese society and to Hong Kong society and pandas are one of those things," said Karim Azar, general manager of retail leasing for the mall's management company.

"Pandas are a national treasure for Chinese people," he said, adding they are a symbol of friendship and good luck.

The panda displays are the main attraction of ifc's Chinese New Year promotion campaign, which also includes gift giveaways, performances and other activities. After Christmas, this is the second biggest time of year for the mall, said Azar.

"It's been very busy, a couple of shops have run out of things," he said, noting that shoes and watches are big sellers before the new year because it's bad luck to buy them after. Clothing is also popular because of the tradition of wearing new clothes when visiting family over the holiday period that begins on Sunday.

Hong Kong, known as a prime shopping destination in Asia, has been even more of a shopper's paradise this week than usual with Lunar New Year sales now in full effect.

Major multinational stores that are keen to grow in the Asian market have promotional campaigns specifically targeting the holiday. A Gap store in Hong Kong's Central district is giving away Chinese New Year-themed t-shirts and tote bags with purchases over $65, while across the street at H&M, signs proclaiming "Chinese New Year Deals" hang from the ceiling.

Further down the street at Marks & Spencer, shoppers are getting 20 per cent off seasonal food. Burberry has been running full-page advertisements in newspapers, and their store windows, decorated in red, are wishing passers-by a happy new year. Starbucks stores, meanwhile, are selling gift envelopes with Chinese New Year designs.

Apple's Asia division has an online New Year gift guide urging shoppers to "Take home the perfect gifts," referencing the millions of Chinese who travel home to see family over the holiday period. The company held a "Red Friday" sale on Jan. 25, offering deals only to its customers in Hong Kong and other Asian countries.

Kenneth Chiu left work on Thursday with an iPad mini, courtesy of his boss, and was carrying it under his arm as he walked with a colleague, who also had one under her arm. All employees in their office received one as an end-of-year treat.

"Nice boss," Chiu said with a big smile. Chiu has already finished his own shopping for Chinese New Year, buying all new basketball clothes for his son, whom he is trying to sway away from playing soccer.

This is a peak time of year for multinationals to make gains in their Asian markets, according to Niraj Dawar, a marketing professor at Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University in London, Ont., so they are trying to make the most of the holiday season.

"They're doing this because they expect 50 per cent of their growth over the next 10 years to come from the emerging markets and of course China is at the forefront," said Dawar, who teaches at Ivey's Hong Kong campus every year.

"It pays for them to understand the consumer, what drives the consumer, when are they most likely to spend money … most likely to be susceptible to marketing messages," said Dawar.

One Chinese New Year tradition is to give money in red envelopes to children and unmarried friends and relatives but the holiday is increasingly becoming a more commercial one, according to Dawar.

That's good news for the retail sector in Hong Kong, which has been struggling in the last year. The Hong Kong Retail Management Association called 2012 a "bumpy" year. Retail sales slipped from double-digit growth at the start of the year down to 3.9 per cent in July.

But there are recent signs of a rebound. Growth in December was up at 8.8 per cent, and the sector is hoping for sustained growth through the holiday period.

The ifc mall along Hong Kong's iconic waterfront sees 225,000 people pass through its doors on an average day, and Azar said he's happy with the amount of added traffic this holiday season. Sales figures will be hard to compare to last year since Chinese New Year fell in January in 2012, but he's expecting at least a 20 per cent increase over last February.

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