As Neiman Marcus Group Inc. prepares to start selling its wares in China, the U.S. luxury retailer isn't opening stores. It's setting up shop on the Web.
Neiman Marcus, Macy's Inc. (M) and Milly, the women's clothier, are all tiptoeing into China -- striking partnerships with local Web entrepreneurs because opening stores there is expensive and complicated.
The moves coincide with slowing economic growth in China that has prompted shoppers there to pull back. Still, Neiman Marcus is making a long-term bet on the world's most populous consumer market, Chief Executive Officer Karen Katz said in an interview.
"We believe the Chinese economy, like every economy, is going to have ups and downs," Katz said. "We know that long- term the potential of the luxury consumer is tremendous. There is still quite a big opportunity there."
Even with the slowdown, online sales will triple to more than $360 billion by 2015, predicts Boston Consulting Group. The number of Internet users will grow to 700 million from 500 million, it said. China's luxury market will grow by as much as 22 percent this year, by far the fastest rate of any region, according to Bain & Co., also a consulting company.
The deals with local companies mean Macy's and Neiman Marcus can learn more about Chinese shoppers' buying habits before deciding whether and how to scale up. The strategy is also cost effective. Macy's is spending about $15 million on its China Web venture; by contrast it is lavishing $400 million on a renovation of its New York flagship store.
"It's a very clever way of dipping their toe in the water," said Robert Burke, whose namesake consulting firm is based in New York. "What's driving it is the sheer numbers. The number of consumers and their appetite to spend is going to be highly attractive to retailers and brands."
In its first international foray, Neiman Marcus, owned by Warburg Pincus LLC and TPG Capital, is developing a new namesake e-commerce website with a Hong Kong-based partner. Neiman Marcus plans to start the site in China with Glamour Sales Holding before the Chinese New Year in January, CEO Katz said. The Dallas-based retailer has invested $28 million in the closely held Chinese company.
Macy's, the second-largest U.S. department-store chain, will begin selling an assortment of its moderately priced I.N.C. apparel on www.omei.com next spring. It made a $15 million equity investment in the parent VIPStore Co.
"International expansion is of long-term interest to us," Jim Sluzewski, a spokesman for Cincinnati-based Macy's, said in an e-mail. "But we want to learn as much as we can before making substantive decisions about the future."
Shangpin.com, a website that says it sells authorized, current-season international designer and contemporary goods at full price, debuted this month. Milly and Tracy Reese, whose fashions are worn by Michelle Obama, are among 80 brands selling their goods through the site, whose Mandarin name means "fashion" and "quality."
Sensing opportunity, private-equity firms are investing in Chinese e-commerce. Shangpin has attracted $60 million in capital from international investors including Walt Disney Co.- backed Steamboat Ventures. Warburg Pincus and KPCB China invested $120 million in fashion e-tailer www.xiu.com last year.
These Web-only ventures face several barriers. Brand recognition remains low in China, while shoppers prefer to see the actual products and are leery of receiving counterfeit goods, Burke said. They also are reluctant to spend large sums online, said Claire Chung, a vice president for global business development for Shangpin. The country's average online transaction size is the equivalent of $31, she said.
"We are going to have a lot of work to do to educate the consumer about Neiman Marcus," said Katz, 55. "What is important is this message of history, heritage and authenticity because they don't know our brand."
To that end, the Neiman Marcus site will work to be a kind of personal shopping guide.
Milly NY CEO Andy Oshrin said he had been reluctant to enter the Chinese market before he found the right partner in Shangpin. The e-commerce approach is a better alternative to building the Milly brand in China himself with expensive stores and marketing, he said. Online sales of Milly's colorful, print dresses already tend to outperform those in stores, he said.
"It was a way to enter China strategically," Oshrin said.
China has its own tastes and quirks. Shoppers prefer washable clothing because dry cleaning is less available, said Winnie Foon, a Shangpin vice president for global merchandising.
There is greater demand for medium sizes in the northern part of the country, and for small and extra-small in the south. Chinese women love dresses because they don't require the mixing and matching skills that separate skirts, blouses and slacks do. They traditionally have worn fine jewelry, and are just discovering how to wear fashion jewelry, Foon said.
Www.neimanmarcus.cn will offer full-price, current-season fashions specifically pitched to the Chinese luxury customer by a Shanghai-based chief merchant, Katz said. Because Chinese men are avid luxury consumers, Neiman Marcus's Chinese Web store will carry a larger assortment of men's merchandise than the U.S. site. Ditto for shoes and handbags.
While Chinese consumers have been interested in merchandise from well-known brands with logos, they're learning to be more sophisticated, more "in-the-know," Katz said.
"That shift really plays into where our strengths are," she said. "We are great editors of product."
Shangpin, which is hiring stylists who can provide fashion advice on the phone, is offering free shipping within two days. In major locations, a courier will wait for the customer to try on the items and will take them back if they don't suit.
"We now have a new generation of Chinese women, of professional women," Foon said. They are "looking for clothes for the office, for the weekend."
Designer labels Jimmy Choo, Alexander McQueen and Brunello Cucinelli have signed on to the Neiman Marcus site. They'll ship their merchandise directly to a warehouse in Shanghai, which will then distribute it to the online customer, Katz said.
It will be difficult for Chinese e-commerce ventures to replicate the customer service that American online shoppers enjoy, including quick delivery to remote locations, and easy returns, said Michael Appel, a director at AlixPartners LLP, a consulting company in New York.
"There is the whole logistical issue," Appel said. "China is a very big place."
Still, the Web ventures may benefit from the cooling economy, Appel said. Shoppers who've developed a taste for luxury goods may be less likely to go on shopping sprees to foreign or Chinese cities and will shop online instead, he said.