Saturday, May 25, 2024

Have stamp, will travel: New fad a boost to China’s retail scene

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BEIJING (The Straits Times/ANN): At Happiness Laboratory, a shop selling stationery and souvenirs along ancient Beijing alley Nanluoguxiang, crowds gathered in one corner, chattering excitedly as they stamped their notebooks with colourful pictures of the capital city’s landmarks.

One visitor was attempting the ambitious task of holding a stencil in place while trying to use nine stamps of varying colours to form a composite picture with some of Beijing’s icons. These include the ancient Bell and Drum towers, Shichahai with its scenic lakes and Nanluoguxiang.

People have to spend at least 38 yuan (S$7.25) on the shop’s other items to add the stamp of the gentrified street to their collection. A shopkeeper at Happiness Laboratory told The Straits Times that the stamp has helped boost revenue by at least 20 per cent since the owner rolled it out.

One must spend at least 38 yuan at Happiness Laboratory in Nanluoguxiang to get this design that requires shoppers to align nine stamps properly. – ST PHOTO: AW CHENG WEI

“We also publicised the stamp’s design on social media, which has also attracted shoppers’ attention,” added the shopkeeper. She declined to be named as she was not authorised to speak to the press.

Retailers across China have been tapping the growing trend of stamp-collecting to boost footfall in offline shops, in a country where citizens are increasingly used to shopping online.

The share of e-commerce retail in China more than doubled in seven years to 27.6 per cent in 2023, making it the largest online retail market in the world, according to Statista.

In particular, Covid-19 pandemic restrictions from 2020 to 2022 had driven many Chinese to shop online, with many bricks-and-mortar retailers finding it hard to lure back customers after restrictions were lifted in end-2022.

For example, Caixin business magazine reported in July 2023 that home-appliance retailer Gome’s store count had dropped to less than a tenth of that of mid-2022.

Local Friends Letterpress in Changsha tapped a designer to come up with a limited-design draw for the May Day holiday. - PHOTO: XIAOHONGSHULocal Friends Letterpress in Changsha tapped a designer to come up with a limited-design draw for the May Day holiday. – PHOTO: XIAOHONGSHU

During the back-to-back Mid-Autumn Festival and China’s National Day breaks in 2023, an eight-day holiday that lasted from Sept 29 to Oct 6, the term “stamp travel” emerged as the second-most popular search term after “self-driving trips”, according to Tongcheng, a popular travel app in China.

That was the last major holiday when most Chinese visited domestic destinations for fun and leisure before the latest May Day break from May 1 to 5.

For the Chinese New Year holiday, usually in January or February, people would typically go back to their home towns.

State broadcaster China Central Television reported in September 2023 that snaking queues could be spotted outside shops in Shanghai’s The Bund, Wukang Road and tourist information centres where visitors waited to get notebooks and postcards stamped with pictures of the city’s landmarks.

To make the most out of the “stamp travel” trend for the latest Labour Day holiday, retailers, particularly souvenir and stationery shops close to tourist sites, worked with local designers and those in other cities and provinces.

At Local Friends Letterpress in Changsha, capital of central Hunan province, shopkeeper Deng Nan said that the shop tapped a designer for a limited-edition stamp design showing a pavilion built in memory of Tang dynasty poet Du Fu and a stone statue of a young Chairman Mao Zedong in the Juzizhou neighbourhood.

Stamp designs at Local Friends Letterpress showcase Hunan’s specialities and landmarks. - PHOTO: XIAOHONGSHUStamp designs at Local Friends Letterpress showcase Hunan’s specialities and landmarks. – PHOTO: XIAOHONGSHU

Shoppers have to pay 10 yuan to get the stamp design. Ms Deng said: “Our shop, which sells mainly stamp designs, among other knick-knacks, has been set up because of the stamp travel trend.”

Local Friends Letterpress started operating after the Chinese New Year holiday in February. Embossed postcards of Hunan’s travel hot spots are a big draw, she added.

“We have to constantly come up with new designs to keep our customers interested, and to also replace those that are worn out.”

Each stamp mould costs at least 50 yuan to make, shopkeepers said. It is not clear when and how the trend emerged, but they noticed that more shops started rolling out the stamps in mid-2023. This was as domestic travel began to take off again after the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions in late 2022.

Stamps can be found at stationery and souvenir shops near tourist sites or at visitor hot spots, such as Tanzhe Temple in Beijing, Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou in eastern Zhejiang province and the Yungang Grottoes in northern Shanxi province. The site operators produce their own stamps.

“It’s a fun way to draw visitors, and the stamps are colourful, informative and educational,” said the shop assistant at Happiness Laboratory in Beijing.

“It’s also a low-cost way to drive sales, which have fallen or remained stagnant since late 2022, when China lifted Covid-19 restrictions.”

The stamps’ sizes can range from one-sixth of a B5-sized paper to a full page, with up to nine colours. They can feature at least one landmark to a composite of pictures. For example, a stamp at Lingyin Temple has at least four colours and can take up a full page showing its main hall as well as a lotus, crane and dragon in the background.

But not all stamps show tourist sites.

At a shop in Chongqing, designs include captions introducing aspects of Chinese culture such as the lion dance, embroidered ball and iron fireworks.

Mr Qin Wei, who runs Xiao Yin, a chain of souvenir and stationery shops in Wuhan, capital of central Hubei province, is working with shops in 23 other cities to come up with weekly designs that zoom in on Chinese culture and traditions.

For example, for the Labour Day holiday, the collective rolled out a set depicting China’s solar terms which describe the 24 periods that mark the year in the Chinese lunisolar calendar, including the awakening of insects (jingzhe), frost’s descent (shuangjiang) and the winter (dongzhi) and summer (xiazhi) solstices.

Earlier designs include historical artefacts that belonged to China but are now in overseas museums so that visitors can learn more about Chinese history, Mr Qin said.

Mr Qin Wei is working with shops in 23 other cities to come up with weekly designs that highlight Chinese culture and traditions.  - PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MR QIN, XIAOHONGSHUMr Qin Wei is working with shops in 23 other cities to come up with weekly designs that highlight Chinese culture and traditions. – PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MR QIN, XIAOHONGSHU

It is not just retailers who are getting in on the action. On Xianyu, an app that primarily links buyers to sellers of second-hand items, collectors can pay gig workers to help them get stamps from other cities.

For example, one can buy a collection of four stamps from Beijing’s Beihai garden, depicting the four seasons, for 35 yuan while a selection of 10 stamps from the National Museum can be bought for 28 yuan through gig workers’ advertisements on Xianyu.

An enthusiast in Zhejiang, who gave only his surname Cai, has collected about 4,000 stamps since he started in 2021. His first stamps were from Zhongshan Museum in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province in the south.

His account on social media and e-commerce platform Xiaohongshu, which has received 54,700 likes and comments, displays the stamps he has collected, mostly in Hangzhou. He has about 1,800 followers.

Within Zhejiang, Mr Cai has travelled to cities such as Jiaxing, Shaoxing and Wuzhen to collect stamps he fancied, sometimes at the shopkeepers’ invitation. His favourite stamps are those he got at temples such as Lingyin Temple and cultural sights such as Wuzhen’s architecture.

He first got into the collecting habit because he found the stamps “memorable and meaningful”.

“The stamps also make good gifts and are a good way to spread cultural knowledge,” he said.

But the trend has grown to become so competitive that “the stamps can be found everywhere, including bubble-tea shops, clothing stores and, of course, museums”, he added.

His pet peeve is how some shops stipulate minimum spend for a stamp, but he recognises that the retailers need to make money “to propel economic growth”.

Mr Qin, the shopkeeper in Wuhan, said the stamp travel trend has boosted sales of notebooks and the city’s maps.

“But it’s getting more competitive. We started working with shopkeepers in other cities because so many stamps had been about the city’s landmarks,” he added.

“We wanted to go beyond the usual designs showcasing landmarks and set ourselves apart from the competition by making our stamps more meaningful and educational.” – The Straits Times/ANN

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