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Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has come under fire over its handling of user data in an episode that underscores growing concerns for privacy in the hyper-digitised country.

Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial was forced to apologise on Wednesday after users said they felt misled into allowing its Alipay service to share data on their spending habits with its credit-scoring arm and other third-party services. Controlled by Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma, Ant Financial provides mobile payment, lending, and credit services to millions of Chinese consumers, and the controversy has featured prominently in China's state-controlled media this week.

Consumers have come to expect a lack of privacy in a country where the government collects a file of personal data on each person including financial, education and other information, and where video surveillance is widespread. But many Chinese internet users reacted with unusual outrage to learn that Alipay, which is used by millions daily to make mobile and online purchases on Alibaba's Taobao platform and elsewhere, had automatically checked a box and hidden language showing they agreed to share their data.

"It's just like Taobao profiting from selling our information, there's no way to refuse!" one user of China's Twitter-like Weibo service complained. The sale of personal information is common in China, which last year implemented a controversial cybersecurity law that among other things requires services to store user data in China and receive approval from users before sharing their details.

"Because lots of information is already out there, everyone thinks there is no way to protect our personal information," said Yue Shenshan, the lawyer whose online posts helped highlight the Ant Financial issue. "But if we don't focus on protecting our private information right now, the situation will only worsen." Ant Financial embedded the new policy in a page Alipay users see when they click through to see their 2017 spending activity.

Screenshots of the activity are frequently freely shared on social media by users who boast either about their purchasing power -- or frugality. "So angry" wrote one executive at a Beijing internet company who this week posted a screenshot of his 9.6 million yuan ($1.48 million) Alipay tab for the year. Ant Financial said in a statement that it has since changed the opt-in policy and showed users how to change their settings. "We are deeply sorry to everyone for the misunderstanding and panic this incident caused," it said.

Privacy is a particularly high-profile issue now as the Chinese government is in the process of developing a national "social credit" scoring system that may rate people on everything from their credit-worthiness to their loyalty to the Communist Party. Alibaba's credit-scoring unit Sesame Credit may someday feed data into that system. The Alipay controversy arose just as regulators in Washington this week rejected Ant Financial's proposed acquisition of US-based MoneyGram after concerns were raised over the security of American customers' data. (AFP)

McArthurGlen confirms details for Ashford expansion

McArthurGlen has confirmed that the planned 100,000 square foot extension to its Ashford Designer Outlet expansion will open in autumn 2019, following the appointment of McLaren Construction as the contractor to build the 90 million pound extension.

Building work on the phase II expansion will begin later this month and forms part of the McArthurGlen Group’s 1.6 million square foot active development pipeline coming through over the next three years across Europe and Canada.

McArthurGlen confirms details for Ashford expansion

McArthurGlen first announced plans to expand the Ashford Designer Outlet in 2014 and secured planning approval from Ashford Borough Council in September 2015. The 100,000 square foot extension will add up to 50 additional premium and luxury brands, a new food piazza, an events space and a redesigned children’s play area, as well as 725 new parking spaces.

The expansion will also include the installation of Europe’s largest living wall structure and many of the stores in the new phase will be clad in tens of thousands of plants, all stacked vertically.

Claude Hargreave, director of development at McArthurGlen, said: “After four years of meticulous planning we’re incredibly excited to confirm that building works on the extension will commence this January.

“Over the next 18 months we will be investing 90 million pounds into the centre to elevate the whole shopping experience for our guests and the retail environment for our brand partners. Once the extension is complete Ashford Designer Outlet will become one of the UK’s flagship fashion, food and homeware destinations, with over 130 stores, restaurants and cafes.“

This will be Ashford Designer Outlet's first extension since opening in 2000, adding to the existing 185,000 square foot centre, which attracts more than 3.6 million visitors every year.

Several new premium and luxury brands have already signed up to join Ashford Designer Outlet when it opens next year, which will be announced at a later date.

McArthurGlen confirms details for Ashford expansion

Ashford Designer Outlet to start work on 100,000 square foot expansion this month

Adrian Nelson, McArthurGlen’s Group leasing and brand development director added: “We are committed to expanding the extensive range of brands already on offer. In the past three years alone we’ve introduced highly sought-after brands including Calvin Klein, All Saints, Diesel, Cath Kidston, Osprey London, Jack Wills, Timberland and Abercrombie & Fitch.”

The expansion of Ashford Designer Outlet is one of eight major projects highlighted by Ashford Borough Council and Kent County Council as key employment and economic drivers in the development of the area. Generating over 500 jobs, the expansion will also include a complimentary shuttle bus linking the outlet, the town centre and the international train station at weekends and during the school holidays. McArthurGlen is also providing funds for the enhancement of pedestrian and cycle routes from the station.

Cllr Gerry Clarkson, leader of Ashford Borough Council, said: “We are pleased to hear McArthurGlen announce its building contractor and confirm that building works will commence shortly. The expansion of the Designer Outlet will transform it into one of the UK’s premier outlet centres, enhancing the shopping experience and providing a complementary offer to our town centre.

“This news illustrates the confidence that major investors have in Ashford and the borough’s future. It is clear that we are gaining a growing reputation as a town attracting inward investment and high-calibre, quality brands.”

McArthurGlen is one of Europe’s leading owner of designer outlets, managing 24 locations across nine countries: Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK. As part of its on-going expansion, McArthurGlen is also under way or in planning with new designer outlets in: Cannock, near Birmingham in the UK, Remscheid, near the German cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf, Málaga in southern Spain and one near Paris in Normandie.

Images: courtesy of McArthurGlen

Gloucestershire’s Local Enterprise Partnership, GFirst LEP has awarded 400,000 pounds of funding to Marketing Gloucester to open the UK’s first national centre for digital retail innovation, which will open in the Eastgate Shopping Centre in Gloucester this year.

The UK Digital Retail innovation Centre will be located on the first floor of Eastgate with the aim of becoming a national centre for testing and developing disruptive digital innovations that will help shape and inform the future of cities with a special focus on retail.

It will help provide a space for technology solution providers and retailers to test innovative technologies and work in partnership to enhance and develop new and possibly disruptive solutions, as well as be a supportive incubator for high growth new retailers, all of whom will have access to next-generation technologies and methodologies and will be targeted on rapid testing of their business model and growth.

The centre will showcase the latest retail technologies and could show off some future innovations such as holographic “virtual employees”, artificial intelligence, 3D scanning and printing of products, drone deliveries, robotic security guards, 360 virtual mirrors and near field communication.

Diane Savory, chair of GFirst LEP, said: “This is an exciting opportunity for Gloucestershire as it further demonstrates that our urban areas are proving to be leaders in the developing of innovation in digital retail solutions.

“We are delighted to be able to award this funding to Marketing Gloucester and confident that it will lead to further inward investment from the private and public sectors.”

Jason Smith, chief executive of Marketing Gloucester added: “There are huge challenges facing the UK retail sector and the UK Digital Retail Innovation Centre has the potential to be a gamechanger which could have a national impact, we greatly appreciate the investment from GFirst LEP.”

Marketing Gloucester are now looking for contractors to transform the currently vacant retail and food hall at Eastgate into the UK Digital Retail Innovation Centre. Plans include the removal of walls, works to ceiling and floor finishes and general renovation to create 11 small shop units, an open area and offices.

Work is expected to start in February and be completed by June 2018.

PODCAST - In this monthly Fashion Friday podcast series by Euromonitor International, we will have a closer look at the top performing brands in Apparel and Footwear 2017.

Euromonitor’s provisional data for apparel and footwear reveal the industry will have another strong year and emerging markets continues to play a pivotal role in shaping the market?

China remains one of the most influential countries in apparel and footwear with some of the fastest growing brands globally originating in China. The provisional data reveal the pace is set by Balabala, which is expected to deliver 24 percent value growth in 2017, which is well ahead of other stronger performers globally in 2017. Balabala is a childrenswear brand that’s benefitted from the Chinese government’s abolishment of the one-child policy in 2015 which has caused a significant rise in Chinese birth rates which are up 13 percent over the last two years. Consequently, baby and toddler wear is one of the fastest growing category in China. More so, Balabala has also benefitted from a comparatively more sophisticated millennial generation of parents in China that do not only want quality clothing for their children but also fashionable and trendy clothing, and many parents are trading up. Also from China, outerwear brand Bosideng and sportswear brand Anta are among the top performers of 2017 according to the provisional data both expected to grow by 14 percent.

Forever 21 may pull out of Benelux, following Amsterdam flagship store closure

London - US fast-fashion retailer Forever 21 may exit the Benelux market for good, as it set to close its flagship store in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The flagship store’s general manager Benjamin Colin confirmed the impending store closure via LinkedIn, adding that more than a hundred employees are set to lose their jobs.

Forever 21 Amsterdam store closure comes four years after the Los Angels-based fashion retailer first opened its flagship store on the popular shopping street, the Kalverstraat. Rumours concerning the store’s potential closure had been circulating among local media outlets for a number of weeks but had yet to be confirmed by Forever 21 and the buildings property owner Vastned. Future plans for the building have yet to be revealed., as neither Forever 21 nor Vastned responded to FashionUnited's inquiries for further details.

The store’s closure could see Forever 21 pulling out of the Benelux market for good. Following Forever 21’s closure in Amsterdam, the US fashion retailer would operate one store in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Forever 21 previously closed down its store in Antwerp, Belgium, citing ‘high rental prices’ as one of the main reasons of its departure in the middle of 2016, and chose not to reopen its store in Brussels following a devastating fire.

It would not be the first time Forever 21 closes a number of its international stores. In 2016 Forever 21 reassessed its retail presence in the UK after struggling to capture British shoppers attention and shut down stores in London, Manchester, Kent, Dublin, and Glasgow. The US retailer also shut down two of its main stores in Los Angeles in spring 2016, to help pay back debt of more than 150 million US dollars to Wells Fargo and TPG Capital. In addition, Forever 21 is also reevaluating the size of its store portfolio in India. Aditya Birla Fashion Retail (ABFRL), Forever 21 store franchise partner in India previously shut one of Forever 21’s stores in Mumbai and downsized one of its stores in Delhi.

At the same time, Forever 21 has been expanding the retail footprint of its budget concept store F21 RED across the US, opening more than 40 new locations during 2017. ”F21 RED expansion represents an important and exciting opportunity for our growth plan, and will allow us to bring a wide variety of product at competitive prices to new regional areas for our increasing customer base," said Linda Chang, VP of merchandising at Forever 21 in a statement.

Photo: Forever 21 Amsterdam, FashionUnited

London - Topshop/Topman is slated to open its first store in Shanghai, China autumn 2018.

The high street retailer’s first store in China will span approximately 36,600 square feet and will be located on Huaihai Middle Road, according to Fashion Network. Work on the new flagship store had already begun, as the store is set to open its doors this September.

The first store opening comes after parent company Arcadia Group announced it aimed to open up to 80 stores in China at the end of 2016. The retail group signed an agreement with etailer Shangpin.com and aimed to open its first stores in China in 2017. However, later on, Philip Green stated that its first Chinese stores would not be opening until 2018.

FashionUnited has reached out to Arcadia Group for additional commentary.

Westfield bucks trend with an increase in visitors over Christmas

Westfield has revealed that 14.1 million shoppers visited its Westfield London and Westfield Stratford City shopping centres over the Christmas period, an overall increase of 1 percent on 2016.

The shopping centres experienced three peak trading periods over the festive period, starting with Black Friday, which they state has been transformed from a one-day event to a three-day shopping weekend with more than 850,000 shoppers visiting Westfield centres for the first festive sale.

This was followed up by the last weekend before Christmas, dubbed ‘super weekend’, where retailers benefited from a full weekend of trading before Christmas Day welcoming more than 800,000 visitors across the two centres, which helped the pre-Christmas week trade to 1.85 million pounds.

The final milestone was on Boxing Day, where visitors topped 320,000, showing that the day still continues to be a big sales day in the British retail calendar.

Myf Ryan, chief marketing officer of Westfield UK and Europe, said: “Westfield continues to be a leading UK destination by offering the best mix of retail, dining, events, leisure and entertainment.

“Over the Christmas period, we offered many unique and immersive experiences to our customers. With over 70 million visitors coming to the centres each year, we are looking forward to creating even more exciting experiences and activities for our customers to enjoy in 2018.”

Westfield bucks trend with an increase in visitors over Christmas

Westfield attracts more than 14 million shoppers over Christmas period

Ryan added: “Boxing Day is Westfield’s busiest day of the Christmas trading period. The significance of the Boxing Day sales has been questioned in recent years but the sheer volumes of shoppers in our centres today show there is a huge appetite from the British public to get out early and look for the very best Boxing Day.”

In 2016, Westfield welcomed 14 million visitors over the Christmas period, who spent on average 660,000 pounds per hour and generated half-a-billion pounds in total sales. Westfield expects to see similar numbers from 2017, currently tracking at an increase of 3.1 percent on last year for the Christmas trading period.

Westfield London houses more than 360 luxury, premium and high street fashion and beauty retailers, showcasing more than 750 brands, anchored by House of Fraser, Waitrose, Debenhams, Marks and Spencer and Next. While Westfield Stratford City is home to more than 330 stores and more than 80 dining options, anchored by leading UK retailers John Lewis, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer.

Image: courtesy of Westfield

BRC: “Shoppers to lose out if UK does not adopt EU global trade deals”

The British Retail Consortium has released new evidence that highlights the importance to UK consumers of maintaining the benefits of trade deals that the EU has negotiated with other countries, especially when it comes to clothing.

As a member of the EU, the UK currently benefits from zero or low rate tariffs on various imports from bilateral trade deals that the EU has negotiated with third countries. From the day after the UK leaves the EU, on March 30, 2019, it will no longer be covered by these international agreements, so imported goods will be subject to higher tariffs and potential customs barriers. For consumers, this means higher prices.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “While securing a deal with the EU to enable tariff-free trade to continue remains the priority, the deals the EU has negotiated with countries around the world also contribute to the choice and affordability of goods that UK shoppers purchase every day. People need reassurance from Government that these deals will be transferred in time to ensure that UK consumers don’t lose out.”

BRC: “Shoppers to lose out if UK does not adopt EU global trade deals”

British Retail Consortium highlights importance of bilateral trade deals to UK consumers

Using import data from UK retailers, the BRC said it has identified the countries where negotiating replica trade agreements will make the most difference to ensure prices do not rise immediately on exit.

These deals are particularly important for the price of clothing for UK consumers, and a “no deal” could mean the tariff on clothing from countries such as Turkey and Tunisia, both major suppliers to the UK, could rise from zero to 12 percent.

Opie added: “New or higher tariffs inevitably mean consumers would face higher prices in their everyday shop, as staple products such as fruit, vegetables, fish, and clothing would be hardest hit. Price increases of any scale would add to the burden of hard-pressed consumers whose finances are already being squeezed by inflationary pressures.

“Now that an agreement has been reached to move the negotiations on to trade, the focus must be on securing the continuity of free trade with Europe, alongside replicating these existing agreements with countries outside of the EU. These are the crucial next steps that Government needs to take to avoid a cliff-edge situation on Brexit day and to deliver a fair Brexit for consumers.”

Images: via Pexels

UK footfall continues to drop

UK footfall declined by 10.5 percent on New Year’s Eve, following drops in footfall on Boxing Day, down 4.5 percent, as well as a decline of 2.3 percent between December 27 and December 30, according to new figures from Springboard.

However, Springboard notes that footfall did recover on New Year’s Day, rising by 16.8 percent from last year, helped in part by the fact the day fell on a Monday this year.

Despite the year-on-year rise on New Year's Day, footfall dropped away markedly from December 30, where it fell by 14.4 percent between December 30 and New Year's Eve, and then by a further 9.7 percent between New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

Diane Wehrle, insights director at Springboard, said: "The drop in footfall on New Year's Eve was unexpected, and particularly the magnitude of the decline. Last year footfall rose on New Year's Eve, but this was a response to a significant drop in 2015 which saw severe weather conditions. It was against this backdrop that it was anticipated that footfall would rise modestly.

“The mitigating factor may have been the wind and rain that was evident earlier in the day - from Storm Dylan - which could have led consumers to change plans, however, the weather had mainly cleared up by the early evening.”

Wehrle added: “Overall the Christmas and New Year trading period this year has been challenging for bricks and mortar stores, with noticeably lower footfall than last year. In part this is a reflection of caution amongst consumers, but is also a function of underlying structural shifts in consumers’ shopping habits due to online activity, and the fact that spending is spread across a wider range of products than ever before which is increasingly encompassing leisure experiences rather than purely physical goods.”

Image: via Pexels

UK consumers start Christmas shopping early in sales

Savvy British shoppers are looking to prepare for Christmas 2018 with the help of the January sales, according to a new report from the Halifax, with consumers expected to spend an average of 91.83 pounds taking advantage of the discounts.

The survey reveals that men will spend the most in post-Christmas sales at 106.73 pounds, while women will spend 77.63 pounds. When it comes to regional data, consumers in London are expected to spend the most at 172.76 pounds with shoppers in Northern Ireland expected to spend just 47 pounds.

More than one-third (36 percent) said that they will buy next year’s Christmas cards in this year’s sales, with a third (33 percent) looking to pick up discount wrapping paper and almost a third (32 percent) even picking up presents to put under the tree in 2018.

In addition, the report reveals that with the growth of Christmas jumper days in workplaces all over the country, one in seven (15 percent) will buy a Christmas jumper now for next year, with more than a quarter of 18-34s (28 percent) leading the way. 27 percent of those in the North East said they’d buy a Christmas jumper now for next year, but only 8 percent of Scots and 9 percent in the East Midlands said the same.

Britons are not only starting to shop for Christmas 2018 but also saving, with one in seven (15 percent) planning to start saving towards this year’s Christmas in January, rising to 20 percent in Wales. Amongst 18-34 year olds 68 percent said they will save or have already started to save for Christmas 2018, compared to 55 percent of 35- 54 year olds and only 34 percent of over 55s.

Jon Roberts, managing director of Halifax credit cards said: “Christmas can be an expensive time of year, so it’s encouraging that people are thinking longer-term and planning for 2018 already by saving and picking up cards, wrapping paper and even Christmas jumper bargains in the sales.”

The report also revealed that more than one in three Brits received at least one Christmas gift they didn’t like, but only 7 percent of Brits return or exchange them, preferring to store them (31 percent), gift them to a charity shop (28 percent) or re-gift them to someone else (23 percent).

Image: via Pexels