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With growing threats coming from online retailers, the recent emergence of the ‘boyfriend-sharing’ service could be the answer for Chinese brick-and-mortar stores to gain a more competitive edge on Singles’ Day on November 11 – the country’s biggest shopping event.

The service First appeared in the Hainan province, as a temporary marketing activity for Christmas in 2017. It is now becoming more common across other regions of China. Shopping malls in Hebei and Shandong have also launched the service, offering male shopping companions (the ‘boyfriends’) for rent.

The malls present smartly-dressed young men to the public, who can be hired for 30 minutes for a fee of 1 CNY (0.15 USD). There is a QR code (a machine-readable code for storing URLs or other information that can be scanned by a smartphone camera) associated with each “boyfriend” which customers can scan and pay for the service.

The service includes what a real life boyfriend would do for the partner on a shopping date – holding bags, taking selfies, chatting and offering advice on purchases. But customers are not allowed to have physical contact with the “boyfriend,” which marks the service to be strictly for shopping only.

Increased footfall for brick-and-mortar retail?

Every year the annual Singles’ Day in China is a huge headline grabber in local and international media, and escalating sales figures over the years are continuing to surprise the retail industry and the general public. Although brick-and-mortar retailers have benefited from Singles’ Day, online retailers have been the biggest winners, through the offering of best value-for-money in the form of discounts and deals.

However, the fun and novel elements brought by offline marketing campaigns such as ‘boyfriend’ rental is something which cannot be achieved online. It is likely to entice experience-seeking millennials from the online channels back to traditional physical shopping.

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The service works particularly well for occasions like Singles’ Day. The theme matches the aim of the festival, which is celebrating women’s pride in being single, whilst the ‘boyfriend’ element is in line with single women’s intention to look for a ‘date’. The novelty makes shopping more interesting for both the participants and other shoppers, and the affordable pricing makes the service accessible to all.

Although offline marketing activities such as the ‘boyfriend-sharing’ service is likely to provide only a temporary boost in shopper traffic, it shows how brick-and-mortar retailers in China are now going the extra mile to encourage consumers to switch back to physical shopping. A boom of marketing innovation created by physical stores and shopping malls is now underway.