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SHENZHEN, China - European customers of global food retailer Carrefour would be appalled to find a snake in their shopping trolley, but in China, foreign supermarket operators competing for a slice of the country's booming retail market have found that appealing to local tastes is necessary.
Snakes writhing in an open-topped tank fetch 58 yuan (US$7) for half a kilogram.
"Chinese people eat snake and so you have to provide snakes. If you want to succeed in China, you have to survey people about what they like, what they want and what they eat," Eric Thevenet, manager at a Carrefour hypermarket store in Shenzhen told Reuters recently.
"And then you have to provide it all at the lowest price possible," said Thevenet, whose store in the southern Chinese boomtown also stocks turtles. It's a strategy that seems to be paying off for Carrefour, which has 32 stores in China, overshadowing its rival U.S. behemoth Wal-Mart Stores, which has 22.
Carrefour is not alone in efforts to tap China's booming consumer market, where retail sales growth will exceed nine percent in 2002 and 2003, making it the fastest growing market in the world, according to analyst Joseph Ho at Macquarie Research.
"For the retailers there is a tremendous potential market. When you look at distribution channels only five to 10 percent of goods are sold through supermarkets and hypermarkets," said the Hong Kong-based Ho.
South Korean supermarket operator Shinsegae Co Ltd last week unveiled a $400 million plan to open a 40-store chain of supermarkets. Germany's Metro AG, U.S. membership store operator PriceSmart, and the ParknShop retail arm of Hong Kong conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa Ltd also have presences.
British supermarket operator Tesco Plc, meanwhile, has been trying to enter the Chinese market for over a year, but has still not found a suitable local partner.
"There is already an intense level of competition, especially in places such as Shanghai. Big players like Carrefour have been there for a while now and they are growing in size and scale so they can put pressure on manufacturers and get good prices," Macquarie's Ho said.
While supermarket operators may not be ringing in the profits just yet, vendors at traditional shops are feeling the heat from their giant multi-national rivals, Reuters reports.