Despite high hopes and big investment in China, international hypermarket giants cannot keep pace with locally based RT-Mart.
Sun Art takes shine off Wal-Mart in China
The shelves are stacked to the ceiling with low-priced hot sauce, Barbie dolls and noodles. Nearby are tanks where shoppers can choose live sea bass for dinner.
Welcome to RT-Mart, China's version of the US giant Wal-Mart.
From Shanghai to Chengdu, the outlets run by China's largest big-box retailer, Sun Art Retail Group, are recreating their versions of Wal-Marts, with one big difference: they're giving them the feel of local street markets featuring such delicacies as hairy crabs laid on table tops and discounted hot-pot ingredients.
That formula has helped it crack the country's 507 billion yuan (Dh298.12bn) hypermarket industry that its overseas rivals Tesco, Wal-Mart and Carrefour have struggled to get a handle on.
Sun Art succeeded in outdoing western rivals through more localised management, sharper knowledge of the Chinese consumer, tailoring shopping experiences and offering discounts on regional specialities, says George Ren, an analyst in Shanghai with the industry consultant Roland Berger.
"Foreign retailers have yet to understand local consumer preferences, while Sun Art has," he says.
The United Kingdom-based Tesco this month reported a drop in China comparable sales, three weeks after Wal-Mart posted lower operating income.
That's a setback for the overseas retailers who are counting on Asia to offset a slowdown in developed markets and the global fallout of Europe's credit crisis.
Sun Art, a venture between Taiwan's RT-Mart and France's Groupe Auchan, posted a 75 per cent jump in first-half profit.
Analysts from HSBC Holdings, Barclays and Sinopac Securities are predicting it will extend its lead by winning a bigger share of China's retail industry.
Sun Art had a 12.8 per cent market share last year among operators of hypermarkets in China, Euromonitor's data showed. This compared with 11.2 per cent for Wal-Mart and Carrefour's 8.1 per cent.
Sun Art "are localised, and hired local people as store managers so they know what the customer needs", says Linda Huang, an analyst in Hong Kong with Macquarie Securities.
The company's profit is poised to rise 20 per cent next year to 2.8bn yuan, according to a median estimate of eight analysts.
Global retailers have been taking steps to advance in China for more than a decade. They got a boost from the country's 2001 entry into the World Trade Organisation, which eased restrictions on foreign investment.
Regional competitors and a weakening economy have since turned the country into a hurdle for them.
Wal-Mart told investors last month that customer traffic in China was falling and operating income in the country had "slighty decreased" in the third quarter even as net sales rose 6.1 per cent.
Same-store sales at Carrefour, the first foreign retailer to enter China, in 1995, fell 6.1 per cent in China in the third quarter, excluding currency swings.
While Sun Art might, for instance, offer a discount on soy sauce, a western chain in China could lower the price of, say, Coca-Cola, says Mr Ren.
"Overall, their prices are not cheaper, but in categories in which the Chinese consumer pays more attention, they are," he says.
Tesco closed four China outlets in August and plans to open 16 hypermarkets this year, down from an earlier forecast of 20 stores, it has previously said.
By contrast, Sun Art is likely to add a total of 105 hypermarkets this year and the next, a higher than usual expansion, according to a report from the Sinopac analyst Vivian Liu.
Sun Art operates 240 hypermarkets under the RT-Mart and Auchan brand in China, it said, while reporting interim results.
Carrefour has 212 stores in China, with plans to open 24 new ones this year, the company's external press relations agency, Blue Focus, says. It declined to comment on competition from Sun Art in China.
At an RT-Mart in Shanghai's Yangpu district on a recent morning, customers used plastic baskets to select fish from large tanks. Fish are killed and de-boned on the spot by store staff, similar to informal neighbourhood markets in China.
To draw shoppers in a country where ready dishes such as fried noodles and steamed pork buns are popular, the Yangpu store has a fully functioning kitchen where staff in white aprons prepare food in full-view of grocery shoppers.
A Wal-Mart hypermarket a five-minute drive away appeared to have less customer traffic, despite a subway station below it. That store had discounted roasted almonds and snacks. No customers lingered about its live fish tanks and it had no kitchen.
While foreign retailers also try to appeal to local tastes, they haven't had as much success as Sun Art.
The Shanghai RT-Mart has live clams, hairy crabs and several clean tanks of fish. By contrast, the nearby Wal-Mart has a smaller line of tanks and much of its other seafood is frozen.
Sun Art declined to comment on its China strategy.
Wal-Mart does not comment on competitors, said Ryan Zhang, a spokesman for Wal-MartWal-Mart
The company is "fully confident" about the prospects of the Chinese market and plans to open more than 100 stores on the mainland over the next three years, he said.
Zhou Quan, 70, used to shop at an informal neighbourhood vegetable and meat market but now uses RT-Mart, citing the range of products and trust in its food offerings.
"I came yesterday to pick up meatballs and hot-pot sauce that was on promotion, and today I'm back for the lamb and drinks."
Sun Art isn't immune to weaker economic growth in China, where GDP may grow 7.7 per cent this year, the slowest since 1999, according to a survey of 54 economists. It also faces local competitors such as the government-backed China Resources Enterprise.
Sun Art has become so successful, it has spawned copycats among smaller regional hypermarket chains, which modelled several new stores after them, says Lina Yan, an analyst with HSBC.
Part of the challenge will be to hold on to shoppers such as the Shanghai resident Xu Zhong Qing, 28, who chooses to buy her groceries at RT-Mart rather than a Wal-Mart outlet located close by.
"There's a warm, neighbourly-feeling here," she says, while waiting for her turn at the butcher.
"You also know you get the best value for your money when you see all the other housewives and the average person on the street shopping here."
* Bloomberg News