The march of brands into China continues apace: Facebook is pursuing its billion-user dream by courting Baidu, luxury brands such as Marni and Armani are not only opening stores but e-commerce sites, and InterContinental is developing a hotel brand specifically for China.
Among the most closely-watched China entrants: Groupon, which is bouncing back from its Super Bowl fumble in the US to banking on a bright and shiny future with China.
It's planning to hire up to 1,000 locals as it makes a move to establish its brand as the go-to site for group-buying to the mainland. According to the Wall Street Journal, Beijing-based Gaopeng.com has been holding interviews in an office with a Groupon banner.
Gaopeng.com is registered "by someone at Internet giant Tencent Holdings of Shenzen, China" — Tencent, not coincidentally, is China’s largest internet company and a stakeholder in Digital Sky Technologies, a Groupon investor.
More than 50 young men and women showed up to interview for marketing, web design and customer services jobs. Advertisements for Groupon positions have also been posted at Chinese universities and on job websites: "The largest group-buying site is hiring in Shanghai!" and "Groupon is the fastest-growing company in history... and it's now starting its Chinese company."
Snapping up a beachfront property on China's Internet would be the Holy Grail for the explosive group buying market. China has upwards of 450 million Internet users, more than any other country.
Groupon’s site went black in China after a few hours last week, as it lacked a valid license, according to local regulators, even as the Tencent/Groupon partnership has triggered digital xenophobia in China’s already crowded group-buying space.
Competitors are speaking out about this recent challenge to Groupon’s China launch: “They deserve failure because they are trying, once again, to impose foreigners’ ways on the Chinese market,” wrote Meng Xiaolan, a web designer at a domestic online coupon company.
According to Tuan800, an online group coupon aggregator site, more than 1,000 group buying sites have been set up in China recently, and competing sites have accused Groupon of ‘unfair’ hiring practices — even as they see scores of local staff hired away by the U.S. behemoth.
Tuan800.com estimates transactions on couponing sites will surpass 16 billion yuan ($2.4 billion) in 2011. Google, Yahoo and eBay all have a toe-hold in China, but native companies like Alibaba Group and Baidu Inc., dominate the highly regulated market.
Fall-out from Groupon's Super Bowl XLV Tibet spoof ad continues on Chinese websites, pointing to an ignorance of China’s values and political sensitivities.
Commerce and politics make strained bedfellows at the best of times; and in China in particular, the web is the new bargaining table with Western brands wanting a stake in its fast-growth future.