Is your college store taking advantage of a burgeoning market on campus? If your school is anything like hundreds nationwide, it has a growing international program — and the country that dominates that pool is China.
Chinese students in America numbered 304,000 as of the 2014-2015 academic year, according to an Institute of International Education (IIE) annual report. That number has increased five times in the past decade and is expected to continue growing.
Disposable income has been on the rise in China, and the students descending on campuses nationwide have money to burn. What’s more, many are their family’s only child, born to a growing upper-middle class population eager to ensure their darlings have only the best. In China, these kids are known as “little emperors,” which should give you an idea of the power they wield when it comes to household spending decisions.
I’ve taught Chinese students in both the U.S. and Beijing and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Although they have much in common with students everywhere, it can help to know a few things about how to appeal to them specifically. Your American Gen Z customers are the most culturally savvy — and welcoming — generation in history. So, reaching out to Chinese students doesn’t mean you're excluding locals. In fact, it might endear you to your Gen Z customers even more.
What you can do to welcome this big-spending cohort into your store
- Mark the date — You’re probably familiar with Chinese New Year, but have you heard of Single’s Day? The Nov. 11 Chinese festival celebrating the loner’s life is the largest online shopping day of the year — anywhere. It makes Black Friday look like, well, another ho-hum retail sales day. On Single's Day 2016, Chinese consumers spent $17.8 billion within 24 hours, most of it on Alibaba. Ask someone in your school’s Asian Studies department — or even a Chinese student — to translate the holiday into Mandarin for your marketing materials. Include English, pinyin — the Romanized version of the national language — and Chinese characters in your ad. It will stand out online and on bulletin boards around campus, not just to Chinese students but also to culturally-curious Gen Z shoppers. Who knows? Maybe you could start a multi-national trend.
- Have an app for that — Chinese students tend to be voracious online shoppers, so you have yet another reason to strengthen your omnichannel presence. China has the world’s largest retail market and the world’s largest eCommerce market. Online sales exceeded $899.09 billion in 2016 — 47% of digital sales worldwide — and are expected to grow 20% each year by 2020. A full 55.5% of that spending happens on a mobile phone, which means you’ll not only benefit from a website but also an app. Check out how Panola College Store extended its omnichannel reach.
- Think high-ticket items — When you market a sales event, promote expensive items. These students will be interested in the best you have to offer. One luxury mall has had so much success selling to Chinese students that it regularly busses them and their parents to its stores from campus at UCLA.
- Gifts matter — Gift-giving is a vital custom in China. At the end of each semester, consider a multi-lingual promotion that shows off some of your best spirit wear and gifts. Students will be heading back home for the break, and they will not want to arrive empty-handed. They’ll want merchandise you can only buy in the U.S. — and they’ll want the highest quality items they can find.
- No Facebook — Some Chinese students might test out Facebook and Twitter while living in the states, but they’re far more likely to use native language social media channels to stay in touch with friends back home. Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. are all banned in China — and that’s probably less because of politics and more because of economics. Censorship gives local businesses an edge. Most Chinese students I’ve talked to regard the Chinese communication networks as superior to ours, anyway. You’ll want to make ample use of your website for marketing, while also advertising in the store and on fliers around campus.
As you get to know the Chinese students coming into your store, it’s helpful to remember that the country isn’t monolithic. It’s a multi-lingual, culturally diverse nation full of regional rivalries. The differences between southerners and northerners, for instance, are closer to the differences between U.S. and Mexican citizens than they are to our northerners and southerners. Ask students where they’re from — and what makes their home different from other parts of China. Shanghai denizens compete fiercely with the Beijing-born, and both are eager to talk about what makes their metropolis superior. Remember, too, that students from cities like this are highly sophisticated. Our tiny college towns can seem strange, backward and unsettlingly quiet to them. Above all, let your curiosity guide your conversations. You’re sure to win hearts as well as loyal customers.