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China's biggest jeweler sees gold in the masses

Thursday, 5 Dec 2013 | 6:55 PM ET
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The world's most valuable jewelry 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. It's weapons of choice: Hello Kitty and Winnie the Pooh.

Superman and the Angry Birds team also feature in Chow Tai Fook Jewelry 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.

(Read more: China gold consumption set to cool in 2014)

"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.

Chinese gold demand is strong: Pro
Bart Jaworski, equity analyst at Davy Research, says that there is a big demand for safe haven assets.

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 jewelry 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.

(Read more: Gold demand slumps as Indian consumption shrinks)

"Just like fast fashion, fast jewelry 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 fashion jewelry, which costs between HK$200 and HK$2,000 ($26 and $260), is 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.

China vs India: Who has stronger gold demand?
Miguel Perez-Santalla, VP of Bullion Vault, says China's growing economy allows it to have a stronger position on gold.

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.

(Read more: Goldman predicts steep losses for gold in 2014)

Image conscious

But as it pushes into rapidly changing jewelry, 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 jewelry 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.

(Read more: India's gold fever cools this Diwali)

"They have to groom a new group of customers to support the brand and products."

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