When Chinese sportswear brand Li Ning set up shop in Singapore in 2009, it took one month to sell its first badminton racket. Former world No.1 shuttler Lin Dan may have endorsed the brand, but in the eyes of Singaporeans, one detail stood out — that it is a brand from China.
"Initially, they doubted the quality of the product. My own kids told me they prefer Nike and Adidas as these brands were better," said Mahendar Kapoor, managing director of Sunlight Group, the sole distributor for Li Ning in Asia. Its retail shop at Ion Orchard, Li Ning's first store outside of China, closed in 2014.
But today, the firm distributes Li Ning products to close to 70 retailers in Singapore, and sells 3,000 to 4,000 rackets a month. "Once people started using our products, they realised the quality is comparable with those from other parts of the world," said Kapoor.
As more retail brands from China make their way to Singapore, they find themselves having to fight the perception that their products are of poorer quality – never mind that China has long been the factory of the world where products from iPhones to Uniqlo clothing are made. Some consumers worry, for instance, that Chinese brands lack a rigorous supervisory process.
Streetwear brand Hotwind opened at 313@Somerset last November, while fashion label Urban Revivo opened in Raffles City in January this year. These are their first stores outside of China. Hotwind vice-president White Wang recalled how a business associate from Singapore told him not to include Chinese characters in the shop's signboard. But Wang did, placing Hotwind's English and Chinese names side by side.
"He told me Singaporeans don't think highly of Chinese brands," said Wang, who is from Shanghai. "But we are a Chinese brand, we can't run away from this." It is a prejudice that Hotwind, which sells clothing, shoes and accessories, aims to change by ensuring its products are of a high quality, said Wang.
"In China, we didn't do much advertising but we now have over 900 stores. People find out about us mainly via word-of-mouth so it's a testament to our quality," he said. "I'm confident Hotwind will take off here once we open more shops." He aims to have three to five stores here by the end of the year.
Urban Revivo, which has more than 150 stores in China, said China-based production has changed "quite a lot" over the past 10 years. "People are surprised when they realise how the quality (of Chinese brands) has improved," said its international marketing manager Federica Rubeo. "We're proud of our Chinese heritage," she added.
Meanwhile, Chinese fashion retailer Yishion, which entered the Singapore market in 2013, now has nine outlets here. It has more than 8,000 outlets globally, including more than 7,000 in China. "Our quality is good, that's why our prices are not low-end, but more of the mid-range," said its general manager Raymond Shen, 33.
Then there is lifestyle brand Miniso. Its founders are a Japanese and a Chinese, but it markets itself as a Japanese brand. "We consider ourselves to be more of a Japanese brand as our product design and product concept is from Japan while manufacturing is carried out in China," said its assistant marketing manager June Ng.
Miniso has more than 2,000 outlets globally, including more than 1,000 in China, 26 in Singapore and four in Japan. Cushman & Wakefield Singapore research head Christine Li expects more Chinese brands to open here in the next 12 months.
These brands are looking to expand overseas, as many are shunned by consumers in China who typically prefer Western brands, she said. And Singapore is an obvious choice, given its status as a gateway to the region. "Their brand presence in prime shopping centres here could be seen as an indicator of quality and prestige, which will make it easier for Chinese brands to expand in domestic and international markets in future," said Ms Li.
Both Hotwind and Urban Revivo said they intend to use Singapore as a springboard to other South-east Asian nations such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Hotwind is opening a store in Kuala Lumpur next month. Hotwind's Wang said, "Having a shop in Singapore increases our brand value in the eyes of consumers."
6,500 China firms in Singapore
Last year, there were some 6,500 firms from China in Singapore, almost twice the number in 2011. They are involved in various sectors, from construction and insurance to transport and food and beverage.
Chinese construction firms started building up a presence here in the 1990s. Some of the notable contracts landed by them include a $100 million project to expand Nanyang Technological University's teaching facilities, and a $705 million job to build the Universal Studios theme park on Sentosa.
In recent years, a crop of restaurant chains from China have sprouted here, including the popular Sichuan hotpot chain Hai Di Lao. At least three opened last year: hotpot chain Spicy House in Riverside Point, Shi Miao Dao Yunnan Rice Noodles in VivoCity and Riverside Grilled Fish in Raffles City.
Chinese firms have also made their presence felt on the road, with Mobike and Ofo bike-sharing firms entering the market early this year. In shopping malls, streetwear brand Hotwind and fashion label Urban Revivo set up stores in the past six months. Retail analysts expect more Chinese retailers to join the fray this year.