When Chicagoans walk into department stores downtown this month, they shouldn’t be surprised to be greeted with a red envelope and a cheerful “Gong Hei Fat Choi.” That’s Cantonese for “May you be prosperous in the New Year.”
Dotted throughout the floors at Macy’s on State Street are displays featuring fine china, lanterns and tea sets for the Year of the Horse. In between the pinks and reds offering Valentine’s Day discounts, golden horses adorn bright red banners welcoming in the New Year. The Chinese holiday’s prominence in the American holiday calendar is definitely on the rise.
“I think it’s kind of silly but it’s catchy. It could get your attention,” said Jackie Sanders, 82, who was shopping at Macy’s Wednesday.
State Street itself is lined with banners advertising Chicago’s celebration of the Chinese New Year. It’s part of a wider initiative by the city to increase Chinese tourism around the holiday.
The Chinese New Year began Jan. 31 and retailers across the country are using the holiday to bridge the marketing gap between Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
A record 1.5 million people from China visited the United States in 2012, according to a Crédit Lyonnais Securities Asia study, and an initiative that began in the mayor’s office is attempting to draw more of these visitors to the Windy City.
“A city-wide celebration of Chinese New Year is a wonderful way to bring together Chicagoans from around the city while attracting visitors from around the world,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a release.
Last summer, Emanuel told the audience at a China-U.S. Exchange Foundation conference that he wanted Chicago to be the most Chinese-friendly city in the country.
The city said it plans to expand the New Year celebrations in the future until it becomes the largest such celebration in North America.
This year events included a music and light display on State Street and a window display highlighting Chinese culture at Macy’s. The city’s celebration corresponds with the full length of the Spring Festival, which runs from Jan. 31 to Valentine’s Day Feb. 14. The date of Chinese New Year rotates with the lunar calendar and years are designated with a corresponding zodiac animal. People born in the year of the horse tend to be talkative, perceptive and stubborn.
The increased celebration already has had a noticeable effect on the city.
“It did, of course, bring a lot of business,” said Sharyne Moy Tu, acting executive director of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. “As compared to 10 years ago, this year there [were] lines to get into the restaurants.”
Tu also noted the parade in Chinatown was packed with people as was a festival at Navy Pier during the weekend.
Retailers also have taken the opportunity to use the Year of the Horse in sales promotions. Department stores including Macy’s and Bloomingdales – both owned by Macy’s Inc. – have dedicated sections of their stores to the holiday.
“We welcome Chinese shoppers and tourists, along with all of our loyal shoppers, to join the festivities as we celebrate the Year of the Horse,” said newly appointed Bloomingdale’s CEO and Chairman Tony Spring, in a press release.
Bloomingdale’s built New Year-themed pop-up shops within its flagship stores, including North Michigan Avenue. Customers were encouraged to participate in a red-letter lottery in which they were given a chance to win gift cards worth $8, $88 or $888. Red envelopes filled with cash are traditionally given as gifts at special occasions in China, and the number eight is considered lucky.
Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism board, also used red envelopes in its marketing to Chinese tourists looking to visit the city during the New Year. Choose Chicago’s Weibo page ran a competition to send virtual red envelopes worth 50 yuan (roughly $8.50) redeemable at China’s largest online retailer, Jingdong Trading Co., to Weibo users who hashtagged the Chicago tourism board in a post. Weibo is China’s largest microblogging site with more than 503 million registered accounts.
Other companies such as Estée Lauder Inc. have used the New Year to market existing products in new ways, and some companies with equine-themed logos have jumped at the marketing possibilities.
Ralph Lauren Corp., known for its polo-playing logo, has released a 2014 Chinese New Year collection, and Longchamp SAS, the Parisian leather goods company with a jumping horse mascot, released a one-off Year of the Horse purse.
Big Bowl, a Chinese and Thai restaurant chain that is part of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago, cantered ahead with Year of the Horse-related offers. Big Bowl’s “Horses Eat Free” campaign gave a free main course on Jan. 30 to customers born in a previous Year of the Horse and its “Good Luck Gamble” offer let customers roll dice to get the amount they rolled off of their dinner.
“I think there’s a temptation to see [this marketing] as cynical,” said Clifford Shultz, a marketing professor at Loyola University Chicago’s Quinlan School of Business. But he added that demographics in the U.S. are changing.
“There is a shift of people celebrating the Lunar New Year in the United States, and there has to be a payoff for retailers to do this.”
Chinese New Year celebrations run in Chicago until Feb. 14.