At the richest mall in America, Chinese New Year is as big a deal as Christmas

The South Coast Plaza celebrates the Year of the Monkey.
The South Coast Plaza celebrates the Year of the Monkey.
Image: Quartz/Corinne Purtill
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Costa Mesa, California

South Coast Plaza, the highest-grossing mall in the US, did $1.7 billion in sales in 2015. Its peak season begins the day after Thanksgiving—known at the mall as “Fabulous Friday,” not Black Friday—and ends not at Christmas but at the close of Chinese New Year celebrations.

This week at the sprawling shopping center in southern California’s Orange County, there are scarlet red dresses on the mannequins at the windows of Carolina Herrera and Balenciaga. Dolce & Gabbana is selling a monkey-print T-shirt, exclusive to the mall, in honor of the Year of the Monkey.

Shoppers who spend more than $2,500 in a single day at the center get a crystal bowl from Tiffany’s engraved with monkeys. The mall has prepared “thousands” of bowls to give away, spokeswoman Debra Gunn Downing said.

At this time of year, many US malls, particularly those in West Coast cities with large Asian-American or Asian expatriate populations, feature Lunar New Year celebrations or décor. But South Coast Plaza is looking beyond its local clientele to a rapidly-growing base of wealthy Chinese tourists spending serious retail money abroad.

High-end brands from Burberry to Louis Vuitton shuttered some mainland China branches last year amid the country’s economic slowdown. Yet while domestic luxury consumption in China fell 2%, luxury purchases abroad jumped 10%, according to the consulting firm Bain & Company. Shopping tourism from China increased 32% in 2015 from the previous year.

South Coast Plaza officials recoil from the term “mall”—they prefer “shopping destination”—but it is a mall, albeit an unusual hybrid of elite global brands and concessions to middle-brow tastes.

The center has assiduously courted China since the early 2000s, long before that country’s boom in foreign tourism. It was the first shopping center in the US to accept China UnionPay, the Chinese bank card. It was a prescient investment. Chinese shoppers now make up 30% of the global luxury goods market, with about half of spending done abroad, according to Bain.

The admiration is mutual: there’s a gated community an hour outside Beijing called Orange County.