Link Up, Learn More: Interview with Toffler Niemuth, Owner of Shop My Shanghai
Toffler Niemuth, Owner of Shop My Shanghai and Marketing/PR Manager of Italki is both a young entrepreneur on the rise and an inspiration to businesswomen who are ready to think outside of the box… and outside of their home countries. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I can’t wait to see what Toffler does next. Read on and enjoy!
First and foremost, how did you celebrate Lunar New Year? You mentioned that you were escaping Shanghai. Any new adventures?
I love to travel and use any excuse I can find to travel, so with the week long Lunar New Year holiday, that’s exactly what I did! I spent 10 days traveling around northern India with a friend. We went to the Taj Mahal, saw the Holy Ganges, ate well, and of course, shopped like crazy! India was my 47th country.
You’ve owned and managed Shop My Shanghai for the past two and a half years. How did you come up with this brilliant business idea in the first place?
Just before moving from the US to Shanghai in mid-2006, there was an article in my hometown newspaper (The Arizona Republic) about a company who took women from out of town shopping around the high end galleries and boutiques of Scottsdale, Arizona. I thought, if this works in the US where the customers speak the same language (all domestic tourists) and the shops are straightforward in their goods and pricing, it must work in China where international tourists can’t read or speak the language, everything is negotiable, and the amount of shopping is just overwhelming. So I figured I could add value by helping people negotiate this city, the quality, pricing and availability of goods, as well as the language barrier.
As a personal shopper, what are some of the more standard purchases that your clients are interested in? Do you ever receive strange requests?
Pearls, handbags, DVDs, and clothes are among the most popular items to buy. I don’t get that many strange requests, but one of the more unusual ones was lace for a wedding dress.
Shopping in China can sometimes require incredible bargaining skills. Have you mastered that art yet or is it more about forging relationships with specific vendors?
Being able to negotiate is an important life skill, and one that can be honed through bargaining in China. For higher end items or bulk purchases, relationships do play somewhat of a bigger role. But you still need to be able to bargain, and most importantly, be willing to walk away. If there is too much eagerness in your eye, you are sunk. My China trained bargaining skills were definitely put to the test in India.
Okay, I have to ask… Counterfeit bags and watches are still the rage among tourists. How do you handle this?
If that’s what they want, then I just remind them of the ethics of buying counterfeit items and of the risk they face upon entering customs in their home country. We still help them as if they were shopping for anything else. They are our customers, first and foremost.
You are also the Marketing and PR Manager at Italki-a relatively new field in China. Tell me a little bit more about what this entails.
Italki is an internet startup to help people learn languages online. Italki is basically the Facebook for learning languages. We connect people with complementary language skills for language exchange—I teach you English, you teach me Chinese; we also have the italki Languages version of Yahoo! Answers; we have huge amounts of resources (text, audio, and video) for self-study of languages; and our newest feature is Language Teachers—paid online teaching of foreign languages by experienced professionals and tutors. Italki is one of the few startups from China to go global, following in Alibaba’s footsteps. As the Manager of Marketing and PR, I’m primarily responsible for internet and social media marketing, press, developing relationships with universities, putting on events, and getting recognized in foreign languages which, since italki covers more than 200 countries, you can imagine there are a lot of markets to reach out to. Also, since it’s still a startup, I help out in other areas too, such as community management, product design, and strategy.
The obvious question- how did you end up in China in the first place and do you have plans to stay over the long-term?
I wouldn’t say I really ‘ended up’ in China so much as I chose to move here in mid-2006; the time was right for me to expand my horizons and use the Chinese I’d studied in college, as well as explore business opportunities in this increasingly important country. Things are very fluid among expats and every month there are goodbye parties and welcome parties. That being said, I live a happy, comfortable, enjoyable life here and hope to continue doing so for as long as it makes sense. At the minimum, I’ll be here through the end of 2010, because I expect demand for my shopping services to peak then due to the Shanghai Expo.
What strategies did you employ to promote Shop My Shanghai?
I actually don’t spend a lot of time or energy promoting Shop My Shanghai. That, however, might change over the coming months. Mostly, I’ve just gotten the SEO fine-tuned so that people discover me through searching, including journalists and other writers who contact me for interviews for articles.
Did you make all of the necessary connections (drivers, store owners, vendors, tailors, etc.) before you launched the business or was that more of an organic process as the company continued to grow?
I did a ton of research before I started the business, but as one of the fastest developing cities in the world, Shanghai is always changing, so I have to constantly keep up with store closings, new hotel openings, and shops and tailors moving locations. We’re always building more connections, testing out new vendors and tailors, and looking for other hidden gems. (If anyone has any I should know about, email me!)
Foreign entrepreneurs in China are predominantly male. Tell me about a few other expat women who are making waves in business. What advice would you give to young women who are considering launching a business in China?
I can only think of two other female expat entrepreneurs here in China, and one has already relocated back to the States. The remaining one does research on Asian financial markets and the economy; her business is quite successful- I believe she employees about a dozen writers. The one that relocated back to the States was out here running a tech company while researching tea plantations to start a high-end tea business back in the States. Her tea has been widely adopted by celebrities: www.teavalize.com
Some advice I would give, first, look for a support network of people that can help you and give you advice (SH Entrepreneurs group, NextStep, Young Entrepreneurs though AmCham, or personal connections), but don’t naively believe all the advice you’re given. Everyone has an opinion on your business, but ultimately it’s your business, you’ve done the research, and you need to love what you’re doing. Whether or not it’s harder to start than you think it is, it definitely will be more time-consuming that you imagined, and it will require sacrifices along the way. I hate to say it, but girls still have to work harder, this is especially true when starting a business and even more so in a foreign land. You can waver forever, but you won’t know till you try, so just do it!
You work directly with tourists on a regular basis. What are some of the misconceptions they bring to China? Do you play any role in bridging that knowledge gap?
Overall, I’d say there are fewer misconceptions about China now than there were a few years ago. Many people don’t expect the level of development, and all the sky scrapers they see when they arrive. That’s quite a big shock. They also don’t expect the cities to be as clean as they are. More specifically related to shopping, some people think *everything* is cheap here, but it’s not. Not only is Shanghai in general getting more expensive, but there’s a huge duty on luxury goods, and on some non-luxury foreign brands as well. China is not the place to buy real LV bags or Omega watches. Even Nike clothing can seem overpriced here depending on the strength of your home currency.
On a brief trip to China, you only get a taste of the country, nowhere enough to unravel its mysteries. China is such a complex society, with a rich multilayered history that a short trip to China isn’t going to make clear. China is too hard to summarize in a sentence, or even a whole essay. We can only help tourists understand a little bit and try to help them make sense of what they see here.
How has the current economic downturn affected consumerism in Shanghai? Has Shop My Shanghai been impacted?
I would say people are being more cautious and looking out for the sales in Shanghai more, but retail here has had no where near the hit that the US has had. The savings rate is high and overall people are still positive and confident looking forward so they can still spend if they want to. (That may be starting change for the worse, though.) I was really worried that Shop My Shanghai would suffer greatly this year from the economic downturn, but so far bookings have remained about steady or maybe even picked up. Overall, though, inbound tourism is down, so I guess maybe I’m just getting a bigger share this year.
Do you have other business plans brewing at the moment or are you solely focused on Shop My Shanghai?
Well, I’m currently expanding Shop My Shanghai into other languages (German’s next!). Besides that (and working with italki), I’m also considering opening up other cities in China, and maybe starting a new line of business related to Shop My Shanghai. Plus, I’m always looking for other ideas.
If I’m interested in bringing my wish list to Shanghai, how can I get in touch with you?
You can email me: Toffler@ShopMyShanghai.com or call me in Shanghai (+86) 139 1618 2950