City Life: Supermarket warrior deploys ultimate detergent

Hong Kong

WAR CLOUDS may well be gathering over the Taiwan Strait where the Chinese and Taiwanese armies are mobilising but the war everyone in Hong Kong is talking about is the supermarket war.

Combat in the grocery zone may be commonplace elsewhere but in Hong Kong there has been a long-standing cosy duopoly by two massive companies who had practically three-quarters of the market. One of these chains, Wellcome, is run by the British-controlled Jardine Matheson group, the other is ParknShop (which would be in deep trouble were there a trade descriptions act in Hong Kong, as it rarely offers parking), run by a company controlled by Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong's richest man.

Customers were trained in the gentle art of surrender to sullen service and minor price competition. The recession has caused the chains to make some effort and improve service but nothing prepared them for the blast of real competition from a new company called adM@art. In theory, adM@rt is an online discount store but in fact it is an old- fashioned pile-em-high-and-sell-'em-cheap operation by Jimmy Lai, the man who began a clothes-retailing revolution with Giordano stores. He started another revolution in Chinese language newspapers, transforming their appearance. Using his papers as an advertising base, he is taking on the duopoly and they are spitting, warning suppliers if they touch adM@art they can expect to be shunned.

Advertising has been withdrawn from Mr Lai's publications and they have started slashing prices as never before. "I don't believe it," said a customer in the Sai Kung branch of ParknShop last week as he balanced two 24-can packs of Coca-Cola on a supermarket trolley. "This is costing me almost half what I used to pay." An elderly woman struggling to pick up a massive watermelon being sold for next to nothing, was bewildered by the price. "I've never heard of this adM@art", she said, "but if that's why they're so cheap now, I like them very much."

Outside the store are massive banners proclaiming price cuts and a host of other special offers to lure in the punters and keep them out of Mr Lai's clutches. Equally frenetic promotions decorate the nearby Wellcome store. But it looks suspiciously as though both stores are offering more or less the same bargains, just as they used to, although at considerably lower prices.

adM@art was conceived as an online shopping service, with a fleet of trucks making door-to-door deliveries. Most orders are faxed or phoned and business is also conducted from its bright yellow and grey stores. The biggest problem for the new entrant is that its switchboards are perpetually jammed and it keeps running out of stock. The company took full-page advertisements apologising and hopes the ardour of potential customers will not cool. Jimmy Lai does not do things by halves, so he seems reconciled to losing millions to get the new business going and he's forcing the competition to spend a great deal to do battle. Hong Kong finally has competition in its supermarkets and if adM@art can stay in the race it will encourage others to join.

This will mean the Hong Kong Tourist Authority's old claim about the former colony being a "shopper's paradise" will finally come true. The extraordinary thing is that this supposedly free market heaven has managed for so long to preserve such a tiny degree of competition in the most basic of retail markets.

Mr Lai is a folk hero to many Hong Kong people. He has a marketing genius that is the envy of his rivals. Their intense dislike for Jimmy Lai almost matches the support of his customers who turned to him for low- price, high-quality casual clothing, then for more lively Chinese newspapers, and now for cheaper everyday items from toilet rolls to laptop computers.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor