Could Learning Mandarin Be the New Key to Succeeding in the Fashion Industry?

Need a leg up in the fashion industry? You might want to start learning Mandarin. In December Chinese shoppers officially surpassed American shoppers as the number one consumers of luxury goods. Now, luxury companies are doing everything in their power to adapt to this growing market--and one of the ways they're doing it is by encouraging, or in some cases, requiring, that their retail associates learn Mandarin.
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Hayley Phelan
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Need a leg up in the fashion industry? You might want to start learning Mandarin. In December Chinese shoppers officially surpassed American shoppers as the number one consumers of luxury goods. Now, luxury companies are doing everything in their power to adapt to this growing market--and one of the ways they're doing it is by encouraging, or in some cases, requiring, that their retail associates learn Mandarin.
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Need a leg up in the fashion industry? You might want to start learning Mandarin.

In December Chinese shoppers officially surpassed American shoppers as the number one consumers of luxury goods. Now, luxury companies are doing everything in their power to adapt to this growing market--and one of the ways they're doing it is by encouraging, or in some cases, requiring, that their retail associates learn Mandarin.

Today Burberry reported that they'd doubled the number of Mandarin speaking sales associates in Europe over the past year and seen a 15% increase in revenue in the Asia-Pacific region.

A Chanel retail associate, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke of a mini-Mandarin course she was required to take in 2012. "There were five hour-long classes," she said. "The first being greetings and cultural differences. We learned sizing numbers, monetary phrases, and fabric."

She added that while "most people do not use the Mandarin we learned...it was beneficial for associates to learn more about Chinese culture."

Patricia Pao, CEO of consultancy firm PAO Principle, agrees that having Mandarin-speaking staff is the number one strategy luxury retailers are employing to capitalize on the influx of wealthy Chinese tourists, expected to reach 90 million over the next three to four years. Other strategies, according to Pao, include offering gifts with purchases and partnering with Chinese tour companies to offer luxury shopping tours.

The fact that Chinese tourists make up a vast and quickly growing segment of Mandarin-speaking luxury consumers is significant. "Typically around half of luxury purchases by Chinese consumers are made abroad when they travel," said David Wu, a luxury goods analyst at Telsey Group. He also noted the trend is because of "attractive pricing abroad; luxury goods can cost up to 50% more in China versus Europe."

"Paris is the mecca to Chinese luxury goods shoppers followed by New York and Los Angeles," Pao added. "Most of the Chinese consumption is in these three cities due to 1) perception of better selection and 2) better pricing as luxury goods in China are highly taxed."

So while opening up flagships in China is certainly a smart (and at this point, necessary) business move for any luxury company, it's not enough to fully capture this new consumer market. To do that, luxury companies will have to intensify their presence in international airports as well as major shopping centers in tourist cities across the globe--and they'll have to train their Western retail staff in those respective locations to better serve Mandarin-speakers.

With that in mind, Wu said he wouldn't be surprised if other luxury retailers, besides Chanel, were teaching their staff Mandarin.

"It's been happening over the past few years," Wu said. "I've been talking to management at different stores, and whether it's Louis Vuitton or Gucci, luxury companies are hiring more Mandarin speaking sales associates especially in Europe and the U.S."

Despite the importance of speaking Mandarin in today's luxury retail sphere, Pao doesn't see mandatory Mandarin class as a viable strategy for luxury retailers.

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"Mandarin is an extremely difficult language to learn," she said. "The luxury goods stores are better off recruiting native Mandarin speaking Chinese and training them how to sell their goods."

Indeed, in some cases, the ability to speak the language trumps having had prior experience in the industry. "I know of sales associates at other luxury brands in Midtown Manhattan that have been hired with little to no background in the market but are Chinese-speaking," the Chanel sales associate said.

She added that having an ethnically diverse staff is also useful. "I am constantly being asked if I speak Russian, Mandarin, Spanish, or Portuguese because I look so racially-ambiguous," she said.

As for whether or not the demand to speak the language could one day extend to buyers and designers (after all Alexander Wang's 'Chinese connections' allegedly helped land him the Balenciaga job), both Pao and Wu think it's a possibility.

"Given that one quarter of the World’s population is Mandarin speaking, I think it will become increasingly important for designers, buyers and sales people to have a basic knowledge of the language," Pao said. "That being said, the three quarters of the world’s population speak English so the Chinese need to learn to speak English (much to their dismay) if they want to be a truly global player."

"It would be an advantage for any luxury executive to speak Mandarin," Wu said. "Working abroad, particularly in places like China, and having that global experience will move you upwards in the luxury industry."

The takeaway? If you speak Mandarin, make sure to play it up in interviews--it could help you land the job. And if you don't? Learning some key phrases, as well as becoming more familiar with Chinese culture, might be a smart investment.