With one of the busiest trading periods for retailers of Chinese goods already upon us, Chinese New Year can mean only one thing for the UK’s leading Oriental grocer, Wing Yip. We catch up with the man behind the ever popular chain of superstores, Mr Wing Yip, Chairman of W Wing Yip PLC, to see how he is coping with the pressures affecting the retail sector and his plans for the year ahead.
It is fair to say that 2008 was a golden year for Wing Yip. His four superstores in Birmingham, Manchester, Cricklewood and Croydon have become one-stop shops for the catering trade and oriental food enthusiasts alike. With a 360 strong team of staff and business booming by around 10% year on year, the four iconic red and yellow Wing Yip superstores are now well-loved landmarks in their trading areas.
Cricklewood in North London, the newest superstore, is now fully up and running following its expansion in 2007, with a café and bakery and on-site restaurant opened in the last few months. Two further superstores in Cardiff and Nottingham are also on the horizon, with work due to commence next year.
The group’s flagship Birmingham store, from where the Wing Yip Empire first originated, also includes a Chinese dentist, doctor, travel agent, accountant, solicitor, bank and printer, to offer an all encompassing business centre for its key customers; consumers and the hard working members of the restaurant trade.
As well as his superstore chain, Mr Wing Yip has also built up a highly successful range of Chinese cooking sauces that are currently stocked in Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tesco. He launched his inaugural range of Mai Siam Thai cooking sauces last year, driven by the number of Thai restaurants requesting its produce, which was promptly met by official acclaim at the Great Taste Awards.
This carefully carved, highly successful business is testament to the phenomenal hard work of Mr Wing Yip and his family. His four-strong superstore chain is, he admits, his ‘first and only hobby’.
So where did it all begin? Like all the best success stories, Mr Wing Yip’s is a true rags-to-riches tale. As did many Hong Kong Chinese people of his generation, Wing Yip arrived in the UK in the late 1950s as a penniless migrant in search of the golden offerings of his British motherland. His career has always been in the catering industry, his first venture with his partners being a restaurant in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, which catered to the then ‘conservative’ tastes of the British palate. In 1970, frustrated by the lack of authentic Chinese produce on the British market, he opened a small specialist Oriental wholesaler in Birmingham with his brother Sammy, to supply Chinese restaurants and takeaways with good quality oriental food and food products.
He explains: “When we opened our own business in Birmingham, I couldn’t find the right products apart from when I went to London’s China Town. I had a family friend back in Hong Kong who helped me to import authentic Chinese produce, which I then sold on to restaurants and takeaways as well as the local Chinese community.”
Like so many successful entrepreneurs, Wing Yip’s success stems from spotting a gap in the market and working hard to maximise it. He explains: “Three major developments over the years have led us to where we are today: more and more Chinese cooks have came to the UK and opened restaurants in big cities, people have migrated from Hong Kong following its independence in 1997, meaning a growing audience for our produce, and cheaper air travel has meant that more British people have travelled to China and developed a taste for its cuisine.
“Today, Chinese food is more popular than ever in the UK. Other factors such as the popularity of Chinese cooks like Ken Hom, who did a huge amount to promote Chinese cooking in the eighties and nineties, cannot be under-estimated, as well as the interest in China provoked by the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The move towards healthy eating has also helped our cause, as Chinese food and wok cookery is naturally healthy.”
It is also clear that Wing Yip thinks and works harder than most people in the Chinese food sector. The simple store layout, the same in each superstore, makes what could be a challenging shopping experience very easy to negotiate. As a company Wing Yip also ensures its food is competitively priced – it never sells loss leaders and doesn’t offer credit, only accepting cash or major debit cards.
Surprisingly perhaps, Wing Yip chooses not to advertise a great deal, instead relying on the best sales tool in the industry – word of mouth. Wing Yip comments: “We have a solid and steady brand and our local store is our landmark. We’re not a big manufacturer brand; our reputation has been built up by word of mouth and through our branded lorries and bags.”
True to its origins, Wing Yip is still very much a family-led affair. Mr Wing Yip shares his directorship with his two brothers, Sammy Yap and Lee Yap. His nephew, Henry Yap, is UK Managing Director and his son Brian Yip is International Managing Director, with his other sons and extended family also playing key roles. Having a family business that his children want to come back to is, he states, his greatest achievement.
But does a successful 2008 mean the pressure is on for an equally prosperous 2009? “I’d like to see us continue much as we are,” says Mr Wing Yip, “working on two further Wing Yip superstores and bringing out more Wing Yip branded products. We’re always looking at new opportunities. It all depends what the customer wants – if the people want it, we sell it.
“When I first started the Wing Yip business, I had a sign behind my desk with the three S’s – ‘specialise’, ‘smart’ and ‘strong’. I’ve kept to that and want that philosophy to continue to be at the heart of my company.”
And although he insists that Chinese New Year is not the be all and end all for his retail chain, its popularity maintaining a sustained level throughout the year, the biggest annual celebration in the Chinese calendar will, at the very least, drive awareness of his brand among UK shoppers.
With all that to look forward to, it seems that Wing Yip is very well placed to tackle the year ahead. Asked what he’s most looking forward to in 2009, his reply was to be predicted: “I look forward to carrying on working for as long as I can – this is my first and only hobby.”
Wing Yip PLC
Tel: 0121 327 6618