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Import Foods Growing to Satisfy Expat Tastes

On her second tour of duty in Shanghai, Singaporean Shufen Tan said it's much easier to live in the city now than the first time she worked here four years ago. The reason: Local groceries shelves are offering more selection and more familiar tastes.

"As a lover of cooking, I'm glad to find more Southeast Asian flavorings on supermarket shelves here," Tan, a public relations executive, said.

With the city boasting a population of about 300,000 expatriates, local retailers are increasingly stocking more imported products to cash in on the demands of the new residents and locals looking to diversify their diet.

"Two years ago, only half of the food (we stocked) was imported," said He Yongbao, vice general manger with the Shanghai Hongqiao Friendship Shop-ping Center in southwest Hongqiao, where many expatriates work and live.

The store's 800-square-meter super-market has more than 5,600 varieties of imported food, accounting for 80 percent of all of its goods. The products range from imported chocolate, beverages, canned food, cookies and fruits catering to US, European, Japanese, Korean and Southeast Asian tastes.

Hongqiao Friendship is not alone in its efforts to import more.

Thailand-based Lotus Hypermarket at Pudong's Super Brand Mall said it is seeking suppliers to expand its food for foreigners working and living in the Lujiazui area.

"Now we have nearly 1,000 varieties of imported food. We are talking to suppliers, hoping to increase that number," said Frank Li, store director. "In a few months, we hope we can have as many varieties as Hongqiao Friendship."

Carrefour Gubei, a hypermarket frequented by many expatriates, said it will intensify its marketing efforts for imported food.

"Carrefour Gubei will hold a foreign food festival every two months and add those bestsellers to the permanent purchasing list," said Catherine Jia of the store's imported goods department.

Currently, Carrefour has more than 1,500 varieties of imported foods from about 30 countries.

The efforts are appreciated by expatriates such as Tan, but she said it was still not enough.

"Every two or three months, I ask my friends to bring me a bag of hometown flavorings as the current choices in Shanghai are still not enough for me to make genuine Malay, Thai or Indian-style dishes," she said. "In addition, the prices of imported goods sold in Shanghai are about 30 percent higher than in Singapore."

Currently, imported foods are subject to an average 26 percent tariff plus the value-added tax of 17 percent. In addition, a goods inspection fee of 300 yuan to 400 yuan (US$36 to US$48.2) is charged for each variety inspected, store operators said in defending the expensive prices.

"Right now, retailing imported food is not very lucrative," said Hongqiao's He.

Because, the stores argue, for foods with short shelf life such as Japanese sushi, the air transportation fee adds to its cost. Some specialty goods such as ice cream and ready-to-eat pizza, require air-conditioned containers during shipping, which also boosts prices.

"Our profits are mainly generated by domestic supplies, rather than imported commodities," said Carrefour's Jia. "But we are betting on the future when the tariffs go down."

(Shanghai Daily September 20, 2003)

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