It was a busy Tuesday night at a local Korean BBQ restaurant. At almost 5,000 square feet and taking up the entire floor of the complex, the place is huge. There were eight of us, sitting around three glowing charcoal grills hovering over a patchwork of meats, seafood, veggies and banchan (side dishes). The restaurant was bustling even on a weeknight, with young parents fussing over their toddlers, intoxicated red-faced suits hollering jokingly over soju, and fair-skinned young office ladies giggling over grilled meats.
At our table, two of the guys were busy snapping pictures to upload onto their favorite food review site. Another two were consumed by their iPhones, busy knocking over bricks and popping pesky little green piglets on Angry Birds. At my end of the table, two guys and a girl debated work-life balance as they discussed upcoming vacation plans.
It was a strangely familiar scene, one that reminded me of LAÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Koreatown or a Saturday night out in Flushing. Instead I am in China or more specifically in a restaurant 46 stories up in Pudong, ShanghaiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s dizzying Financial-Center-In-The-Making.
I was invited to the dinner by a long time friend Sun, a Korean American who grew up in San Francisco and came to Shanghai to study Mandarin. After six months he decided to stay for good. That was three years ago. His friends are all local Chinese, mostly in their mid-twenties, surprisingly proficient in English despite never having studied abroad, most of them working for multinational companies, including eBay and BMW.
The ever-growing army of domestic consumers, both in China and the rest of Asia, has garnered quite a bit of attention in recent years. As the rest of the Western world struggle to get back on its feet, Asia seems to just be warming up. In China, the demand for skilled workers greatly outstrip supply at all levels of employment, from senior executives to hotel receptionists to factory employees. Local networking events are now dominated by aggressive fresh-faced recruiters looking to fill their "two placements a month" quota and Chinese-speaking returnees from abroad are the hottest catch. Wages are increasing along with the rapid appreciation of the yuan (28% growth in the past six years) and together with the greatest urban migration in history. Everything is pointing toward a ballooning domestic consumer market. It is estimated that by 2015, China will become the second largest consumer market in the world, with enough purchasing power to buy 14% of the worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s products. But these are just numbers.
WhatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s more fascinating is to witness the actual transformation on the ground level. It is watching that new American Eagle store opening up next door to a Gap that had its grand opening a week earlier, which just happens to be a block away from an H&M and a Uniqlo in the middle of ShanghaiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s bustling Nanjing West Road. Or that Mediterranean restaurant that used to be frequented only by overseas expats but is now teeming with local Chinese discovering an exotic new love called "hummus." ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s seeing young executives chomping on $80 yuan ($12) freshly tossed chicken chopped salads and wielding oversized Starbucks Frappucinos during lunch hour. And the hordes of people in town from second- and third-tiered Chinese cities lining up at the Apple Store, with their bags full of cash, hoping to get their hands on not just one, but half a dozen iPhones to bring home. It is the soon-to-open floating Louis Vuitton store in Singapore, the ribbon-cutting last week of the worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s second largest IKEA in Pudong, and young bankers throwing back Belvedere tonics 118 floors up at the Ozone Bar in Hong Kong, the cityÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hotspot inside the Ritz Carlton.
But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this whole transformation is watching foreign and domestic brands both trying to figure out this exploding marketplace, and finding the best way to carve their own juicy cut. In the midst of this growth I have witnessed advertising successes and promotional bombs, massive marketing launches and public relation hiccups. And if IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m lucky, once in a while, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d spot an idea that is not only Ã¢â‚¬Å“out of the boxÃ¢â‚¬Â but lights the box on fire.
ADM@Asia will be reporting from the streets of China and the Asia Pacific region to bring you these latest happenings, marketing trends and events, and offering a front row seat to the dynamic and ever-changing Ã¢â‚¬Å“Wild Wild EastÃ¢â‚¬Â. Stay tuned!
American Eagle and Apple Store in Shanghai pictured above.