Staff Writer
Jun 6, 2016

Barrows: China is set for a retail revolution

Retailers need to improve shopper experience to meet rising expectations and counter the impact of ecommerce, shopper marketing specialist says.

Barrows: China is set for a retail revolution

Retailers need to improve shopper experience to meet rising expectations and counter the impact of ecommerce, shopper marketing specialist says.

Ecommerce is booming in China, with the country having emerged in recent years as a world-leader in the field. But the rapid rise in popularity of online shopping in China isn’t just down to the convenience of modern technology—according to Barrows it is also because the country’s brick-and-mortar stores simply are not offering shoppers the required experience or incentive to shop in-store.

Barrows global CEO, Lucien d’Avice reinforced this. “In China, stores are cluttered, it is difficult for shoppers to navigate and the stores underdeliver on shopper experience at both a category and brand level," he said. "So the potential for shopper marketing is big in China.”

D’Avice was speaking at the official opening of the agency’s Shanghai office last month, the agency’s 11th worldwide, established to meet rising demand in China for more shopper-friendly retail environments and recognition of the need to serve consumers more seamlessly online and offline.

Barrows believes its approach to the “logic and the magic” of shopping experiences allows it to help brands and ​retailers establish closer connections with consumers, according to Wayne Cowden, managing director, Asia-Pacific.

“We believe the time is now here where Barrows can really start to empower brands and retailers to colloborate more closely to enhance the shopping experience with the ultimate goal of converting more shoppers into buyers in China,” he said.

Barrows has been operating in China from its regional base in Singapore, using project teams on months-long “immersion” postings for major product launches, Cowden explained. But the establishment of a 10-strong team in the country would allow Barrows “to really drive the shopper marketing agenda with clients and retail partners”.

“As a business we are confident on the role brick and mortar will continue to play in China,” Cowden said. “We are seeing new positive trends in China retail. Certain categories are always going to require a physical presence in order for shoppers to experience the brand.”

Barrows global CEO, Lucien d'Avice sees "big potential" for shopper marketing in China.


Established in South Africa in 1990, Barrows has grown into a global player at the forefront of retail innovation, with offices on five continents.

Chief creative officer Ian Gourley said the company's early growth had been “organic”, expanding into new markets largely at the behest of its key clients, but that had become more focussed since Barrows became part of WPP in 2011. The company opened its regional headquarters in Singapore in 2012, and Gourley said the Shanghai expansion represented a significant stepping-up of its operations. 

“You don’t do China half-in: you need to be fully committed or don’t do it at all,” Gourley said. “We are here, we are here properly, here to stay. We are playing the long game here.”

Gourley said he believed one of the keys to the company’s success is a strong “garage culture” which extends across its various offices—something he described as “rocket fuel” powering innovation.

“We are an entrepreneurial business,” Gourley said. “We have always started small in every market we have entered, and there is a real startup energy in that process. We have always tried really hard to retain that startup energy and the dynamic environment it creates.”

In South Africa and North America, Barrows operates with six garages in each market. These small teams enjoy considerable autonomy within the company, run their own P&Ls and approaching projects independently.

“We really don’t want to appear as a big agency, a mega-agency,” Gourley said. “We get in, get the job done, get it into practice as soon as we can. We try to move as fast as possible in all our markets.”

“You don't do China half-in; you need to be fully committed.”
—Ian Gourley, Barrows CCO

Karen Zhu, shopper marketing manager for infant nutrition at Nestlé, said the multinational had been successfully collaborating with Barrows in China for several years.

“Barrows has really helped to elevate the understanding of shopper marketing across our whole organisation,” she said. “They helped us establish a shopper marketing unit within the core marketing team.”

Zhu said she welcomed the opening of the agency’s Shanghai office as she had “been saying for a long time that Barrows should set up in China officially”.

“Now that they are here in China, it will be a big breakthrough in our relationship and our level of collaboration,” she said.

Bessie Lee, CEO of WPP China, said Barrows would “add a welcome dimension” to the network’s Shanghai campus, now home to 26 companies and more than 3,000 staff.

“Barrows’ expertise in shopper conversion would be of high interest to many agencies and clients,” Lee said. “We will start the collaboration with sister agencies that have shared clients with Barrows elsewhere in the world and where cases and experience can be of reference.”

Barrows are now joining forces with other industry experts to form a Shopper Conversion Council dedicated to put the shopper at the centre of the retail experience.

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