Former Manager of Well-known Department Store Witnesses 40 Yrs' Development

November 6, 2018  Editor: Liu Yanmei

A female leader of a well-known department store in Beijing, who has witnessed China's 40 years of reform and opening-up, shared her story with interviewers recently.

On the eve of China's National Day, the Wangfujing Department Store held a grand ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Zhang Binggui, a retired salesclerk who had worked there.

Few of today's young people know who Zhang is, but for Liu Bing, former chairman of China's department store retailer Wangfujing Group Co and President of the Wangfujing Chamber of Commerce, Zhang is kind of her career guide that has impact on her professional development. 

In the 1970s, there was a material shortage in China, and everything was rationed. Liu's father was seriously ill at the time and his only wish was to have some of the assorted candies sold in Wangfujing Department Store. Thus, Liu got there early in the morning and stood in line for the sugars, which were rationed in a first come, first served queueing process.

When it was Liu's turn, it was with some trepidation that she gave her request for a different varieties of the sweet candies. However, much to her surprise, instead of showing any sign of getting bothered to the slightest, Zhang, the salesman, weighed out the assorted sweets for her, one variety after another, in a small amount, with tremendous patience.

"At that time, being a salesman was something that often went by the name of arrogance in China. Therefore, it was truly touching to see someone serve customers with such enthusiasm and patience as Zhang did," Liu recalled.

Deeply influenced by Zhang, in 1979, Liu, who was 25-year-old then, chose to work at Wangfujing Department Store as her top priority after her discharge from the Army.

During the first eight months, she worked as a saleswoman at the counter. They worked on a rotation basis, yet even on her days off, as long as the store was open, Liu was there, waiting in long line in an attempt to buy stuffs for her comrades in arm, relatives, as well as friends.

"When the new arrivals came, the queue would run from the stairs to the counter and squeeze against the counters, leading to congestion," Liu said.

Around 1979, Wangfujing Department Store lauached a Japanese electronics show in its windows, which lasted for a couple years and attracted great attention in the country.

As the first comprehensive department store that received investment and started construction after the founding of the People's Republic of China, the Wangfujing store was considered privileged enough to be entitled to top priority supply of any kinds of goods in the country. Items from foreign brands that entered China in succession were also sold there first.

It was an honor to even be able to shop in Wangfujing Department Store at that time.

In the mid-1990s, the market slowly changed. The material shortage was solved, so goods were more abundant and consumers had more choices.

Shopping in Wangfujing was no longer the only choice. There were regional business centers emerging one after another in other districts in Beijing.

From 1995 to 1999, large-scale construction began in Wangfujing. And this may well be one of those rare occasions when Wangfujing Department Store closed up for its renovation.

"We had a number of different orientations towards our reconstruction then," Liu said.

"Some insisted on preserving tradition, others believed that the store should be as fashionable and high-end as possible and keep up with the trends of the times," Liu added.

In 1997, Liu was already the general manager of the store. In her view, as the country's commercial iconic image, Wangfujing Department Store bore a social responsibility. Therefore, the renovation should not put off old customers while at the same time should also work to attract new ones.

Eventually, they decided on the transformation plan: in keeping with the environment and to bring more comfort and convenience to customers, the store installed rotating ladders, and changed the closed counter to an open one.

Regarding its departments, it introduced some fashionable modern brands, while retaining candies, cloth shoes, and small merchandise, goods they had been selling for decades.

"Like Zhang's candy counter, it became the embodiment of our corporate values. His way of selling has become an art and must be preserved," Liu said.

The store also transferred Zhang's son, Zhang Chaohe, who was selling toys at the toy counter, to the candy counter, thereby attracting a lot of customers.

In 1999, Wangfujing Pedestrian Street opened for business, which gave Wangfujing a more modern image and regained its leading style as a national commercial street.

On the International Labor Day holiday that followed, Wangfujing hit a peak of 900,000 people visiting, with the street packed with people. The upgraded store was also recognized by consumers.

However, new challenges came with the emergence of e-commerce.
When Taobao, China's newly emerging e-commerce website, held its first "Double 11 Shopping Spree" in 2009, it did not attract much attention from the conventional commerce as represented by the Wangfujing department store.

And it was not until the next year that Liu and her peers had come to realize that the growth of the online shopping industry was unstoppable.

In 2013, Liu became chairman of the Wangfujing Group Co., and the group set out to develop both online and offline channels.

In 2016, Liu, who was retired then, was elected president of the Wangfujing Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile, as a major carrier that performs the function of international communication center in the capital city of Beijing, the century-old Wangfujing Street has embarked on a higher level of transformation and upgrading, aiming at ranking among "the world's top ten commercial streets.

"Wangfujing Department Store has witnessed 40 years of reform and opening-up, during which our country has grown from an economy that suffers from scarcity to one that has achieve material abundance," Liu said.

"Today, China stands at the center of the world stage and needs better commercial services to demonstrate our national strength," Liu added.

"We should aim for the goal of internationalization, tap into the traditional culture of Wangfujing and bring the Chinese-style centennial street to the world stage," Liu concluded.

(Source: Beijing Daily/Translated and edited by Women of China)

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