By Donny Kwok
HONG KONG (Reuters) - The world's most valuable jewellery retailer Chow Tai Fook, which counts Cartier and Tiffany & Co as competitors, is on a quest to conquer the hearts of China's future big spenders. Its weapons of choice: Hello Kitty and Winnie the Pooh.
Superman and the Angry Birds team also feature in Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group's range of fashionable, and affordable, pieces which the company hopes will win over the millions of Chinese who live outside major cities but who are reaping the benefits of a rapidly growing economy and who remain enamored by the gleam of gold.
"We are quite similar to the fast fashion way of business in that our products are only available for a limited period of time," Kent Wong, managing director of Chow Tai Fook, told Reuters.
"The stock-keeping units will have to respond promptly to the fast-changing tastes of customers, especially young customers, who can share information about trends very quickly on their smartphones," he added.
China, the world's second-largest economy, is on track to overtake India as the world's biggest consumer of gold this year as falling prices encourage purchases for both personal use and investment.
Combine that penchant for gold with a population that is rapidly urbanizing, and becoming more affluent and trend-conscious in the process, and building customer loyalty as well as keeping up with fashion becomes key to the prospects of jewellery retailers.
About 100 million people are likely to move into cities over the next 17 years, according to ratings agency Moody's. China is already the second-largest market for Zara-brand owner Inditex, the world's biggest fashion retailer.
"Just like fast fashion, fast jewellery is the right stuff to target at the youth and the products can also sell at a better margin when they are limited edition," said Renee Tai, a Hong Kong-based analyst at brokerage UOB-Kay Hian.
GOLD FOR THE MASSES
Chow Tai Fook's U.S.-based competitor Tiffany & Co, best known for its expensive diamond necklaces and engagement rings, also gets about 30 percent of sales globally from its less expensive jewellery, primarily silver items costing less than $500 that have long been part of its selection.
This lower-end jewellery is the company's most profitable, though sales growth in this category has slowed in recent years. Earlier this year, Tiffany hired a new designer to make its silver jewellery more contemporary and the company introduced some new silver jewellery lines.
Chow Tai Fook's fashion jewellery, which costs between HK$200 and HK$2,000 ($26 and $260), is also a far cry from the luxury offerings that have traditionally accounted for over 80 percent of sales, and which on average cost about 10 times as much.
But the shift to expand mass-market retail is already paying off. Chow Tai Fook saw its net profit rise by a forecast-beating 92.3 percent in the six months ended September, with same-store sales growing 33.2 percent.
Chow Tai Fook, which has a market value of nearly $16 billion, is not alone in targeting the masses.
Smaller rival Luk Fook Holdings International, with a market value of $2.4 billion, is looking at opening stores in busy railway stations to expand its reach in China and raise its profile in less developed cities and the vast hinterland.
Building brand loyalty also makes good business sense.
Repeat purchases by Chow Tai Fook's Hong Kong members contributed almost 17 percent to total revenue in Hong Kong and Macau for the six months ended September, while those from its China members made up nearly one-quarter of total sales in the mainland, company data shows.
"We are seeing a significant surge in retailers investing in loyalty programs in order to increase consumers' loyalty as it's getting harder and harder for retailers to drive growth by purely relying on their quick pace of expansion," said Brian Negley, vice president of consumer research firm Nielsen China.
But as it pushes into rapidly changing jewellery, Chow Tai Fook faces the challenge of retaining its reputation for exclusive, luxury items while also appealing to the masses.
The company, founded in 1929, aims to achieve this by selling some of its fast jewellery products online, where most customers are aged between 20 and 35.
Chow Tai Fook also maintains three distinct store layouts that cater to its clients - the high-end luxury consumers, the youth and the mass market, managing director Wong said.
Analysts say focusing on the younger generation is key.
"The company has to ensure this group of people gets familiar with the brand and they won't feel your products are out-of-date," said UOB-Kay Hian analyst Tai.
"They have to groom a new group of customers to support the brand and products." ($1 = 7.7523 Hong Kong dollars)
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Hoegberg in HONG KONG and Phil Wahba in NEW YORK; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Miral Fahmy)