Wang Li may live deep in China's interior, in a city you may never have heard of--the provincial capital of Chengdu--but that doesn't stop her from shopping like the big spenders of Tokyo, Hong Kong or Shanghai. One Friday evening, Wang, 28, trolls down Chunxi Street, a jam-packed thoroughfare of flashing neon signs, McDonald's restaurants and boutiques, looking for the latest fashions she's admired in Cosmopolitan magazine.
First stop is a store selling oddly streaked jeans, next a shop with frilly jackets and flowery coats. After two hours of hunting, she finally plunks down $24 on a pair of brown shoes at a funky outlet selling studded boots and fluffy handbags that's playing earsplitting Gwen Stefani tunes. Wang spends nearly every yuan she earns as a real estate agent on shopping excursions, dinners and drinking sessions with friends. That's no small chunk of change. Since her first job in a coffee shop eight years ago, Wang's annual income has vaulted more than 1,500%, to $7,500. "Five years ago, I'd be happy if I had a little money to buy a small snack on the street. I was yearning for KFC, and my dream was to get pizza," Wang recalls. "Now I can do it."
Can do is the new M.O. of Chengdu. Although 1,000 miles from the glamour of Shanghai, Chengdu has a surprising number of choices for Wang and her fellow aspirants. As China's fourth largest city, it is catching up to the world's richest at a blistering pace. It has a booming economy, escalating incomes and 10.8 million people--more than New York City. Wooing the newly wealthy of Chengdu is a top priority for consumer companies from Coca-Cola to General Motors to Christian Dior. Chengdu is only one of several mammoth metropolises--like Chongqing, Wuhan and Xi'an--experiencing similar booms of investment, wages and jobs.
Welcome to China's China, a land of gargantuan urban centers beyond Shanghai and Beijing where the growth potential is giving consumer-products makers palpitations. "If you want to be No. 1 in China, you have to be successful in every city in China," says Ian Chapman-Banks, chief of marketing for North Asia at Motorola.
On Chengdu's main square, near the outstretched arm of a statue of Mao, sits a shopping center with Cartier, Zegna and Hugo Boss outlets. One night at the new Seibu department store, which opened last April, Italy's Missoni held a fashion show with Chinese models strutting to thumping reggae music. "Everybody who comes to Chengdu has a surprise," says an ebullient Antonino Laspina, the Italian trade commissioner in China, on the sidelines of the show. Living in Chengdu "is becoming like living in New York, Paris or Milan."
Not quite. Yet only a few years ago, the boundless interior was a daunting and unprofitable place for many companies. Giant cities like Chengdu languished, starved of investment and government attention that went to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Chengdu was known mainly as China's largest panda-preservation center. Some companies like Korea's Samsung that tried to make an early move were disappointed and left, or limited their expansion.