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Catching a Wave of New Consumers

Most Chinese teens have never seen a surfboard or a skateboard. But that's not stopping Quiksilver, which is set on selling the culture, clothes and gear to this potentially vast market.

May 16, 2004|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

Shanghai — Mainland China's first Quiksilver Boardriders Club sits between an Adidas store and a Starbucks coffee shop on Huaihai Middle Road. The street is the Champs-Elysees of Shanghai, a city where shopping is the No. 1 sport and half the population is under 30.

For Quiksilver Inc., the Huntington Beach company that helped popularize the surf-wear craze in the United States and made millions exporting it around the globe, cosmopolitan Shanghai was the obvious place to introduce board shorts to a country of more than 1 billion consumers.

Riding a tidal wave might have been easier.

The Quiksilver brand's cachet is linked to its close ties to surfers, snowboarders and skateboarders. But most kids here have never seen a snowboard or ridden a skateboard. And surfing?

"I know it goes up and it goes down," says a teenager shooting hoops at Shanghai Stadium. Might he and his friends like to give it a try? "I'm afraid to die," one of his buddies replies.

In the year since it announced a mainland joint venture with Glorious Sun Enterprises Ltd., a Hong Kong retailer, Quiksilver has learned that the surf, snowboard and skateboard culture that helped it make money selling clothes and sports gear in other parts of the world doesn't translate so easily here.

Quiksilver initially announced plans for as many as 10 Boardriders Club stores in Shanghai by early this year. The one on Huaihai Middle Road opened in February; Quiksilver now says it's set to open one more store in Shanghai in 2004 and one in Beijing in 2005.

"We're just realizing this is going to take ages," says Quiksilver Greater China co-managing director Nicolas Giannoli. "Just ages."

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Ad Challenges

When the company moves into a new market, it usually advertises in magazines that target surfers, skateboarders and snowboarders. There are no such publications in China, so the joint venture has plastered surfing and skateboarding scenes on two city buses and sent text messages offering discounts on caps and T-shirts to cellphones, which many Shanghai teenagers wear as pendants.

But there was no way for Quiksilver to get marketing mileage from its relationship to such star athletes as surfer Kelly Slater, skateboarder Tony Hawk or snowboarder Danny Kass, names that typically draw blank stares here.

"Who is he?" says Ma Bin when asked about Hawk.

Basketball, Ma knows.

"Yao Ming, Shaquille O'Neal," the 26-year-old hotel baggage supervisor says, knocking his fists together to illustrate the head-butting between the rival centers from the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers. "Kobe," he adds, with an exuberant thumbs up.

For all that, Quiksilver figures it's equal to the challenge of China. With an economy exploding at an annual rate of 9.1%, the country is hard for a growing company to resist.

"There are more teenagers in China than there are people in the United States," Chief Executive Robert B. McKnight Jr. told shareholders at their recent annual meeting. "That, to me, is a clear example of where we can take our company."

Early on, Quiksilver zeroed in on a spot to stage surf contests: Sanya, a resort town on Hainan, a tropical island in the South China Sea with blond beaches that is beguiling enough to have snared the nickname "Chinese Hawaii."

There's one pesky problem: "No big waves," says a taxi driver, zipping along a two-lane road that cuts through Hainan's rice paddies. "You might want to try a different sport."

Although surfers can occasionally be spotted on the island, local motorboat instructor Wu Yuning says Sanya's waves are generally wimpy unless there's a typhoon. And he says the problem is bigger than Hainan.

"I'm very familiar with China's beaches," he says. "From my point of view, I don't think there are any beaches in China suitable for surfing."

In 1987, Surfer magazine sent a group of surfers to China, in conjunction with the Chinese Olympic Committee. The committee wondered whether it could "churn out surfing champions," and the U.S. team wondered whether there were any big waves, Sam George, the magazine's editor, recalls.

"They really didn't find much surf," George says.

The naysaying doesn't deter Giannoli, 39, a French-born non-surfer who managed Quiksilver's European operations before taking on China.

"In Hong Kong when there's a typhoon day, everybody's in the water to surf," he says. "So maybe someday that will happen in Hainan."

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In It for the Long Haul

Giannoli, like Quiksilver, takes the long view.

The company envisions itself sketching a blueprint for success in Shanghai, a port city where the sea mingles with mud instead of sandy beaches. It's working now to create a skateboarding park and hopes to start a snowboarding school soon. Eventually, the company says, it imagines sending Chinese youth to Australia to teach them how to surf.

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