By Adam Jourdan and Phil Wahba
SHANGHAI/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fang Ying's December wish list of Louis Vuitton handbags and Chanel perfume is not only for Christmas. Fang, 33, a secretary working in Shanghai, writes one every month for friends and family travelling abroad.
Fang is not alone. Over two-thirds of luxury spending by mainland Chinese was made overseas in 2013, an increase from 2012, according to the China Luxury Market Study from consultancy firm Bain & Company released on Monday.
Chinese shoppers often wait for trips abroad, plan shopping sprees to Hong Kong or get friends or specialist "daigou" agencies to bring back luxury items from overseas because they are often cheaper due to China's high import taxes.
"Sometimes I'll go to a China store and look online for details about things I've liked, or try something on for size I've seen online. But when it comes to actually buying it I'll always get a friend to bring it back from abroad," said Fang.
China is the number one luxury spender worldwide, making up 29 percent of total global luxury spend this year, according to the Bain report. So Chinese consumers - wherever they may be - are a key battleground for firms from LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA and Gucci owner Kering Holland NV to trench coat maker Burberry Group PLC , cosmetics giant L'Oreal SA and Cartier watchmaker Compagnie Financiere Richemont SA .
"The store fronts are in Shanghai and Wuhan, but the cash registers are in Los Angeles, New York and London," said Sage Brennan, CEO of China Luxury Advisors, which helps brands in the Americas and Europe attract Chinese shoppers.
Chinese luxury spending slowed at home in the wake of a crackdown on corruption and shows of wealth, prompting warnings of a sales slowdown from liquor maker Pernod Ricard SA and Volkswagen-owned Bentley Motors and Lamborghini.
Luxury brand store openings dropped significantly in 2013, according to Bain, which estimated China's luxury market will grow two percent this year versus seven percent a year earlier.
On London's Bond Street and Fifth Avenue in New York, luxury stores have been getting ready to welcome Chinese shoppers, boosting China know-how ahead of peak seasons such as the week-long Lunar New Year beginning January 31, 2014.
London's Harrods department store is planning a themed display for the festival, with special products and menus designed for the occasion, it said.
Chinese visitors spent 300 million pounds ($488.34 million) in Britain in 2012, while the British government has relaxed visa rules to attract more people from the world's second-largest economy.
"Having a strategy for Chinese visitors makes a massive difference. Chinese spending in the UK was up 132 percent in the first half of 2013," said Jeremy Gordon, London-based director of China Business Services, which helps UK firms target Chinese shoppers.
"That's obviously going to have a massive impact on your bottom line at a time when overall retail sales are not growing at anything like that rate."
On Fifth Avenue, jeweler Tiffany & Co said it employs Mandarin-speaking staff. Tiffany has seen strong growth in the China market as the allure of diamonds grows, and said last month that sales at its flagship New York store were driven by Chinese and European tourists.
Around 1.5 million Chinese travelers visited the United States in 2012, a more than five-fold increase from 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Saks Fifth Avenue, the department store unit of Hudson's Bay Co , has a Lunar New Year strategy to focus on beauty products, while the flagship store of Macy's Inc has a visitor centre with Chinese-language material.
Barneys, meanwhile, is launching its first Lunar New Year-themed marketing campaign in 2014. The department store has increased adverts in Chinese magazines and is testing campaigns around Chinese payment system Union Pay, it said.
Luxury firms are also going online to woo Chinese shoppers. Tiffany has a Chinese engagement ring app while Chanel offers an online make-up "classroom". Italian fashion house Fendi has held talks on China's Twitter-like Weibo, while Prada SpA <1913.HK> and Christian Dior SA have Chinese videos online.
"Chinese consumers interact a lot more than their Western peers online, even in the luxury sector. They will often check on social media before they make their final decision," said Arnold Ma, London-based CEO of digital marketing agency Qumin, which helps brands target the China market.
Qumin is helping London's famous Bond Street target Chinese travelers in Britain during the coming Lunar New Year.
Luxury leather goods firm Coach Inc has a U.S.-focused campaign in Mandarin using popular Chinese social media app WeChat. The app, developed by Tencent Holdings Ltd <0700.HK>, has 272 million users worldwide.
Coach tailors some of its U.S. products for Chinese shoppers, a spokeswoman said. Chinese are the fast-growing segment of the firm's North American tourist sales, which make up a fifth of total sales in the region.
"This trend is going to continue because the Chinese are a lot more integrated in the global economy and really informed, especially about price," said Bruno Lannes, Shanghai-based partner with Bain and lead author of the luxury market report.
"At the end of the day it comes to the same thing: shoppers will either travel or go online to buy abroad." ($1 = 0.6143 British pounds)
(Reporting by Adam Jourdan in SHANGHAI and Phil Wahba in NEW YORK; Additional reporting by Neil Maidment in LONDON; Editing by Christopher Cushing)
- Louis Vuitton