TOMS strives for local relevance in second-tier Chinese cities

TOMS stores in Greater China are run in collaboration with local partners who act as distributors on behalf of the brand, with both parties sharing ownership of the stores.

It began opening offline retail stores in last June and added around 20 multi-brand stores such as Lane Crawford in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu, Catalog and Foss to their portfolio of distributors.

The shoe brand TOMS currently has six stores in mainland China and open since December, one store in Hong Kong.

Jen Loong, who oversees brand marketing for TOMS in mainland China, said, “We rely on distributors to figure out what makes sense in terms of appetite and market maturity.  We will continue to scale in China, with more openings scheduled.

“Taiwan and Hong Kong consumers have a more mature understanding of our brand philosophy of One for One.”

One for One refers to the brand’s philosophy of giving a pair of standardised shoes to someone in need for every pair of shoes purchased by the customer.

However, the brand first started off in eCommerce in China by opening a TMall store in June 2013.

“From a retail store perspective, there were mall leases and availability dates to factor into store openings.  Launching a TMall store was the most efficient and impassable way to open a store,” Loong said.

“TMall can theoretically sell to most of China but most of the purchases are coming from Tier One and Two customers who are interested in international brands.  In contrast, if we set up shop in Taobao, we would get more inter-province traffic.”

TMall has also become a platform for the brand’s marketing campaigns that tie in social media platforms, TMall and offline initiatives.

For Chinese New Year, the brand launched a campaign where when the customer purchases a pair of TOMS shoes from TMall, they will receive a photo frame in the shoe box.  They can take a shoe selfie, insert the photo into the frame and write down where you live and your name, and submit it to the brand’s Weibo or Weixin accounts.

“We are experimenting with interactive campaigns that weave eCommerce, social media and offline stores together such as through seasonal campaigns and to get people talking about TOMS online in a socially relevant way,” Loong said.

Upcoming seasonal campaigns will include that for Men’s Day on 14 April and Movember.

Loong added that digital marketing allows the brand to show how it intersects with travel, design and photography, through celebrities and key opinion leaders, giving multiple layers to the content marketing side of the brand.

Offline retail stores

TOMS’ retail store concept is to act as hubs for philanthropic activities where people can discuss ideas for carrying out their own initiatives and projects with like-minded people.

The stores have built-in spaces for people and store staff to discuss, materials such as books and magazines, interactive digital content and videos for customers to read about the TOMS story, models of shoes given to children in the One for One programme, maps of where the shoes are going to.

The brand has retail stores in Tier One as well as Tier Two cities such as Hangzhou, Nanjing, Qingdao and Shenyang.

“Retail is still a pertinent strategy for us.  We need to be in Tier One cities because it’s brand education for consumers in cities of other tiers.  Many people travel from Tier Four and Five cities to Tier One malls to check out what’s socially relevant there,” Loong said.

She added that disposable income is not the only factor for considering where in mainland China to open up shop.

“It’s also about which provinces and cities have the cultural and educational maturity to accept, join and support something like the One for One programme,” Loong said.

“Have they received certain types of schooling, are they international-minded and open to Western concepts? Have they traveled and seen poverty and how close are they with foreign communities and brands?

“All of these layers come together and come into play.”

To illustrate the importance of Tier Two cities to the brand, Loong shares how Shenyang’s proximity to Korea makes K-pop stars and Korean apparel trends resonate more with locals but the city’s unfortunate ties to Japan also shape the degree to which they are open to foreign ideas.

With ties to Northeastern China which is active in mining, the nouveau riche makes money from natural resources and spends their disposable income in Shenyang.

“Shenyang is a great test market for provinces with inner-tier appetites and incomes,” Loong said.

Northeastern China is also extremely cold with its own social issues.  Loong shares the story of a customer who said he was exactly the type of child TOMS would be trying to help – who had gone from rags to riches and could now purchase cars, condos and shop in stores like that of the brand.

“We want to inspire these people to do good – because they were ill-equipped before and have gone through immense hardships.  Some of them want to do that by supporting goods and services that contribute to a more sustainable China but some of them don’t understand or aren’t there yet,” Loong said.

“We don’t just want to show up in these cities – it’s about how we can borrow what’s locally relevant and spin it into something that ties in with the brand.”

In December, the brand partnered with a Shenyang magazine to organise a local in-store fashion show in collaboration with a Shanghai blogger and stylist who was originally from Shenyang, showcasing how to remain fashionable in extremely cold weather.

More of these offline events are in the pipeline for the brand’s stores in mainland China.

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