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Asian tourists flock to South Coast Plaza

It’s Day 3 of his four-day visit, and, of course, Yuki Izuka — for the third time — is back at South Coast Plaza.

Sporting black slacks, leather tote, a pinstripe jacket and crisp tie, the pharmacist from Gunma, Japan, heads straight for the most glittering of shops: Tiffany.

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He’s on a mission to find a ring for his wife. “It is very expensive — but even more expensive in my home,” he says. “Better if I can get something here.”

Skipping tariffs and taxes, foreign shoppers flush with cash fill their Southern California trips with shopping sprees at places like South Coast Plaza, and increasingly, employees at the luxury shopping center are taking extraordinary steps to host them, trained to fulfill the tiniest of needs.

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South Coast Plaza has become a destination for overseas Asians, who bundle trips to Disneyland with carefully plotted excursions to the retail mecca, stocking up on snug blue jeans, watches, luggage, purses and flashy sunglasses selling for $500 a pair.

“We could have seen it in American Vogue and we’re here to get it,” said Izuka, looking magazine model-sleek as he and his buddies walk past an Italian cafe and ride an escalator toward the center’s Jewel Court, a cluster of high-end jewelry boutiques where foreigners pay cash for $100,000 necklaces or other sparkling baubles.

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“I like to buy whatever I can because the prices are so low,” says Lucas Xu, comparing the costs to those in China, his homeland.

“And every store has an Asian assistant,” said Xu, an economics major in Colorado who has flown in with friends for a shopping excursion. “Wow.”

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“It’s not just about selling somebody something. It’s about making them feel important,” says South Coast Plaza veteran Werner Escher.

In a sense, Escher is the director of foreign affairs at the center, though technically his title is director of domestic and international markets. He’s been on the job more than four decades and travels to China at least once a year to firm up connections with influence makers. He partners with Disneyland and the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum, ready to whisk dignitaries from Beijing and Shanghai to the shopping center, even providing them chauffeurs and guides.

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Under his direction, the staff is tightly focused on the foreign traveler.

There’s a language-assistance program, with mall and store employees speaking more than 40 languages and dialects. Maps and directions are printed in Korean, Japanese, Spanish and Chinese, among others. Center executives carry business cards featuring Asian characters.

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South Coast Plaza is now the first shopping center in the nation to accept UnionPay, China’s leading credit card. Center reps also hand out VIP Passport booklets with exclusive offers for travelers. One afternoon, Escher shows it to Shelley Chen, who is from Guangzhou, an economic hub on China’s southern coast. He bows and shakes her hand as she’s on her way to look for a Gucci purse, having just graduated from law school.

“I like the famous names here,” she says of the retailers. “My friends said I must come here.”

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Scott Hung, a sales director for a semiconductor company in Taiwan, wants to take home gifts for his twin boys. His boss is familiar with South Coast Plaza “and suggested me to go to this place,” he said, asking about shops that carry children’s goods and that have iPhone docking stations.

Visitors who are overseas celebrities get preferred treatment.

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When Yang Mi, one of China’s leading actresses, who boasts 22 million followers on Sina Weibo — similar to Twitter — came to South Coast, center officials entertained the actress and her entourage in a plush VIP Access Suite near Saks Fifth Avenue. They hosted the Chinese press corps, which swarmed in to interview and photograph her.

“For her to be here is major,” Escher says. “It fills out the playlist of the people we want to attract.”

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Not to miss a beat, the center — which bills itself as a “shopping resort” — served as a ping-pong tournament venue to the top players in the U.S. and China. The cast of “Raise the Red Lantern,” a production of the National Ballet of China, also descended on South Coast, accompanied by diplomats.

That’s apart from outreach directed at the local Asian clientele, highlighting the lunar new year and the autumn moon festival. Managers at anchor stores like Macy’s scramble to hire Chinese-speaking staff. And shopping at South Coast means visitors might avoid three taxes for luxury items imported to China: customs tariffs, value-added tax and consumption tax. Trade missions between Southern California and China can include a stop at one of the most upscale malls in America.

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Concierge Stepheny Southa came to the aid of a pregnant guest recently. Speaking in Mandarin, the woman told her: “You’re my size. I need to buy some clothes that I can wear after having the baby.”

Southa said she went with the expectant mother to try on multiple outfits for her.

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“We have the ability to satisfy someone who comes from a long distance,” Southa says.

Robert Sun, founder of the American Chinese CEO Society, says he has taken guests from China’s Shandong province to South Coast for dinner and to buy presents.

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“They fall in love because of the large number of brand names. No other place can compare,” he recalls. Foreign visitors are familiar with Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive, Sun added, “but now they see South Coast as the best shopping. When somebody has a good experience buying, like, a bag, they go and tell their friends.”

If there’s one thing missing from the experience for shoppers from China, it’s a Chinese restaurant. And shoppers have pointed that out, said Escher, who’s been scouting candidates when he travels overseas. Officials hope to make an announcement by the lunar new year in February, an event they anticipate will be covered prominently by the ethnic media.

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“Shopping,” Escher says, “is the No. 1 activity when people travel.”

anh.do@latimes.com


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