Shanghai-based Aussie expatriate Marcus Grant is founder of the online alcohol and beverage e-tailer Shanghai9. We caught up with him recently and asked him about the challenges of setting up shop in Shanghai, and about the counterfeit alcohol floating around in the city.
Hi Marcus, thanks for the taking the time to do this interview with us. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in Shanghai?
It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m from Melbourne, Australia and have been living in Shanghai since September 2004. After graduating from University in 2001, I went overseas for the first time to Seoul, Korea. Initially I planned to spend only a month living there, however I quickly made a lot of good friends and found a job, so I decided to stay. I lived in Seoul for about 2 years before returning to Melbourne. Once back in Melbourne I quickly started missing the excitement and fast pace I had grown used to living in Seoul. At that time there was a lot of talk about China and the opportunities that existed there, both in the media and among friends that been there or had an interest in China. I decided I would enroll in a 1 year Chinese language course and then head over there to try my luck.
As to why I chose Shanghai, before I even came to China after just watching various travel shows on TV I thought Shanghai would be the place I would choose to live. I am a bit of a night person and loved the look of the city at night time with all the multi-coloured lights decorating the sea of buildings in the down-town areas. And that’s the way it turned out. When I first came to China, actually as the final part of the language course I was doing, we spent some time first in Beijing, then Nanjing, then Suzhou and finally Shanghai. I loved Shanghai and never left.
What have you been doing in Shanghai all this while? What did you do prior to starting Shanghai9?
My first job in Shanghai was teaching spoken English at the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics. In 2005 I started selling lasers and other laser show system components online, which I sourced from several Chinese manufacturers. This was my main source of income until about 2010. During those years I also helped different overseas companies source various products including ashtrays, acupuncture needles and nichrome wire heating elements.
What led you to start Shanghai9?
In 2009 when most of the world’s economies were still in recession I started thinking about domestically focused business opportunities. At that time the range of alcohol available to the retail market was extremely limited. Even going to a high-end western supermarket, which was basically your only option to pick up a half-decent whisky or beer at that time, you wouldn’t be able to find anything much better than a Glenfiddich 12YO or a Duvel. Not that those are bad products, far from it, but my point is there wasn’t a great deal of selection available. After some research and investigation, I discovered that there was in fact a far greater range of products available from different importers, than was being offered to the general public. At the end of 2009 I sold some alcohol to friends and friends of friends, mainly for Christmas parties and to some whisky and Belgian beer lovers. Soon after we created and launched our website.
What sets you guys apart from the other wine/alcohol distribution companies out there?
I think our range of products is pretty unique. We have spirits from pretty much every category, rare liqueurs like Chartreuse and Fernet Branca, bitters for making cocktails and a decent selection of wine and beer, as well as non-alcoholic mixers and imported water. We also guarantee the authenticity of all our products and will refund our customers 3 times their purchase price if any product we sell is found not to be genuine.
We are also very focused on providing great service to our customers. We have expat staff that are knowledgeable about our products. We are able to offer same day delivery in most cases for customers in our downtown delivery area and deliver within a 2 hour time window of the customer’s choice. Delivery is also free for orders over 500rmb if the delivery address is within our downtown delivery area, which encompasses all areas in Puxi within the middle ring road and all areas of Pudong within the inner ring road.
What’s the deal with all this fake alcohol floating around in the bars and clubs here?
There is definitely a problem with counterfeit alcohol in China. However if you are buying directly from the importers or their licensed distributors we believe you can completely avoid getting any fake stuff. Any established and reputable importer or distributor is not going to risk their license, or even jail time, dealing in counterfeit product. You just need to be careful who you are buying from. If you are always searching for cheaper and cheaper prices on products, you certainly would want to be careful. Some distributors or re-sellers under margin pressure might turn to counterfeit product as a way to make a bit more money. Same goes for some of the bars and clubs I guess. But if you stick to visiting more reputable venues, who will no doubt be purchasing from reputable suppliers in most cases, it shouldn’t be a problem.
What are some of the challenges you’ve had in setting up your own business in China?
Just going through all the procedures to set up the company and get the food safety and alcohol licenses took nearly a year. Now the biggest challenge is finding, training and retaining good staff. I guess that’s a problem everywhere, but here it seems many people are more willing to change jobs regularly.
What are your future plans for Shanghai9?
We plan to continue adding new and interesting products to our range. We recently just added some small-batch craft spirits from the USA and plan to add some organic spirits very soon. We are also looking at importing some products ourselves, as a way to expand our range and offer better value for money to our customers.
What advice would you have for other would-be entrepreneurs in China?
Be patient and don’t give up. Getting things done in China can be a bit slow and frustrating sometimes. Research your market and come up with a plan, but be flexible and ready to adapt. Things can change so fast here, you need to be prepared to change with them.
Read more interviews with other interesting China-based people here.