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Made in China: A Store Tour

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On a trip to southern China in mid-November, I had the pleasure of touring more than a dozen supermarkets:. Some were high end, some mid-range, along with a handful of hypermarkets and several discounters.  All of them had interesting items to offer.

The Westerner in me preferred the higher-end Whole Foods-like stores, Taste and Ole, which were clean, bright, well merchandized and a feast for the eyes and taste buds. The deep discounters were much like deep discounters the world over:  Worn out, overstocked and in dire need of a major facelift and deep cleaning! Let’s not even talk about the overpowering reek of fish mainly due to the unsanitary conditions: Once the customer selected a live fish from one of several tanks, the fishmonger would head, gut and clean the fish; but, alas, would not clean the tools or area.

The most interesting store was Jussco, a Japanese-owned and operated chain of stores reminiscent of what we truly appreciate in an American food store. The produce was fresh and vibrant; the meat and seafood individually wrapped that same day; a beautiful display of sushi, sashimi and bento boxes made in store; aisle after aisle of culinary delights and imports — in short, a one-stop shop for all of your food and beverage needs with a sprinkling of household, pet and beauty care products.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the higher-end and lower-end stores was the overwhelming price signs hanging from the ceilings in the discount stores. My eyes just did not know where to focus. The premium retailers seemed more open — lower shelf profiles, higher ceilings (whether this was true or not, I couldn’t tell, but the lack of signage made them seem more open and airy) and fresher, brighter looking products.

The one thing that really struck me while touring all these markets was the lack of private label products. Sure, there were a few here and there; mostly in-store packed goods like nuts and dried fruit, but no “Look at me, here’s what this store is all about” items.

My recommendation to any of these retailers (if they were to ask) would be to further establish brand identity by embracing private label. That's one thing the West can tech them: They’ll be able to truly educate the customer as to what each store was all about, and what it stands for.

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