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 Rob on the road Monday, 9 September, 2002, 12:11 GMT 13:11 UK
Shanghai surprise in store
B&Q Shanghai
The Chinese stores sell furniture as well as DIY goods
It's funny. You go 6,000 miles to China and on the way into Shanghai from the airport, what do you see? A B&Q store.

But while it might seem an unlikely business to set up in such a culturally different country, it's a good example of what companies need to weigh up when considering such a big step.

  • B&Q saw there was a market as the Chinese moved into home ownership in a big way
  • Rather than exporting its UK format, it realised the store would have to designed to cater for local needs
  • It has adapted to fit in with the Chinese culture and habits

    B&Q opened its first store in 1999 and now has eight. It plans to take that number to 60 in the next five years.

    It's managed to capitalise on the emergence of a middle class in China as people buy their own homes and take more responsibility for their financial arrangements.

    B&Q China managing director Ian Strickland
    Ian Strickland: "We learnt very quickly"
    It's a different concept to what we're used to in the UK. There's all the paint, plants and power tools you'd expect, but also a full range of furniture.

    "When people buy a home it's an empty concrete shell so as a business we have the complete home as a project and that's what we've based our format on," says Ian Strickland, B&Q's managing director in China.

    Prices are generally about one-third that charged in the UK. That's because many are produced in China and also because wages are much lower.


    A basic Chinese-made power drill might sell for 8 compared to 30 in Britain. But some items, such as paint, can cost roughly the same.

    Chinese shoppers we spoke to were impressed with the quality and the service.

    So was Connie Cox. She's B&Q's oldest British employee, and was visiting China as an 80th birthday treat.

    B&Q employee Connie Cox
    Connie Cox: "It's out of this world"
    "It's out of this world, it's like I'm in dreamworld because it's so wonderful," she enthused.

    "I can't get over the colour scheme and all the beautiful lamps. Our store you could put in just one part."

    One other difference is that her branch in Hampshire wouldn't have so many staff.

    Because labour is cheaper, B&Q can employ nearly twice as many people as it would in the UK.

    It's not all been smooth. B&Q has had to take account of differences in Chinese culture.

    Local market

    "We learnt very quickly about our Chinese customers' shopping habits and adapted the format and the store to suit the local market," says Ian Strickland.

    One difference is that the Chinese are very keen on touch products before they buy to check the quality.

    B&Q Shanghai
    The shops have plenty of staff
    "We realised that in our format we brought in from the UK a lot of the products were displayed too high and were turning customers off from being able to touch and feel so we've brought the products down."

    But the store is also bringing its own ideas to China, and is working closely with the authorities to make sure older people get a chance of a job.

    They won't be quite as impressive as Connie Cox, though, as the retirement age is 55 for women and 60 for men.


    The company's not alone in China. There's a German firm, Obi, offering similar products and Ikea has been there since 1997.

    But B&Q is confident about its expansion plans, especially now that China has been accepted into the World Trade Organisation.

    "We were restricted under Chinese law to the amount of stores we can open, but one of the aspects of WTO's impact on retailing is that there is no restriction from December 2004," says Ian Strickland.

    While spotting a B&Q on your first visit to China can strip away some of the mysteries of the Orient, it says all you need to know about how much China is changing, shifting to an odd mix of communism and consumerism.

      Rob Pittam reports
    The doors are open to UK businesses once again
      Working Lunch Guide
    How to do business in China
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