For all of the rise of consumerism that is happening in China, there is an astounding difference in the approach when it comes to beauty retail (cosmetics and the like.)  For the Chinese beauty care customer, comparing products across brands is simply impossible.  In malls, high-end beauty lines such as Shiseido, Clinique and Estee Lauder are separate stores which are usually – but not necessarily – near one another.  Comparing something as simple as mascara is impossible in this brand driven environment.

    The same approach is true for everyday brands such as Olay, Neutrogena or Revlon in HBA stores such as Mannings or Watsons.  Each brand is its own section (sold space by the retailers typically in half meter increments.)  Let me give you an example of how this approach is purposefully made to frustrate customers and keep them from making well-informed choices about product attributes and price.

    I entered a shop to purchase two things: black mascara and nail polish remover.  In the US (say, CVS or Walgreens) all I would need to do is head to the mascara section to see all my choices, compare the assortment to my needs and budget and make my selection.  Then off to the nailcare section where I would find remover in plastic bottles – probably underneath the polishes and near some cotton balls (a complete solution, if you will.)

    In Hong Kong and China, I enter the store and find half-meter sections separated by brands.  Aisles are narrow and the stores are ALWAYS crowded, so taking time to comparison shop is difficult.  I must navigate along several aisles to see mascara choices by Maybelline, Revlon, L’Oreal, Cover Girl, and many foreign brands and try to remember the prices and attributes of the various brands in my head to make an informed selection.  Picking up one or more items in my hand will invariably mean that a store woman will follow close beside me to ensure I pay for the item.

    What this means is that the “Customer is King” Category Management philosophy so widely touted by US manufacturers (I’m talking to you, P&G) is mysteriously missing in Asia.  Lifting the veil off this Category Management retail approach, it is easy to see that the only barrier that sits between customers being herded into single-brand merchandising strategies and having an actual ability to make an informed choice is the retailer who stands up for the needs of the customer in the US.  Given an unfettered ability to merchandise their products as they wish, manufacturers would abandon the category approach to merchandising in a heartbeat.

    For my associates who labor in Category Management and Space Management departments in the US and wonder if their work is meaningful, you need only travel to Asia to realize that your work makes a difference for shoppers.