TCL not just selling TVs

Updated: 2013-10-24 08:14

By Wang Jun in Los Angeles (China Daily USA)

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Michelle Mao, president of TCL North America Business Center, expects her brand to be the next Samsung in three to five years.

"We don't want to rush. We'll get there one step at a time," she said in her office in Corona, a suburb of Los Angeles, with the classic picture of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell putting their handprints into wet cement in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater hanging on the wall.

The photo was a gift from the TCL Chinese Theater. Its management took the picture down from the theater wall and handed it to Mao the day TCL put its name on the legendary theater. The idea of becoming the next Samsung came from her Wal-Mart partner when she signed with them and started selling through their chain.

The company name on Mao's business card, however, is not TCL, but TTE, which stands for TCL Thomson Electronics.

When TCL first arrived in the US in 2004, they merged with Thomson electronics based in Indianapolis, Indiana, where TCL started its US journey.

Mao said TCL, a leading TV and electronics brand in China that currently holds 17 percent market share, has always been a leader in going global.

After merging with Thompson, TCL was behind the RC TV brand for five years until a strategic shift in 2009, when they began to wind down RC TV and started to build the TCL brand.

Mao joined TCL in 2002 after working in another Chinese electronics company for nine years. At TCL, Mao worked her way up to overseeing OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) of the entire emergent market, which covered every place but North America, Western Europe and China.

Arriving in the US to lead the company in 2009, Mao was no stranger to the country, having exhibited at the annual Consumer Electronic Show (CES) every year for the previous 20.

In 2010, Mao signed with Amazon and almost all sales were online that year. Shipping costs are something she'd like to cut down, she said.

Mao moved her US headquarters from Indiana to Southern California the following year, and started to develop regional venues.

In a small but quick buildup, TCL in 2012 became an "opportunity buy" at Sam's Club, which means TCL TVs were available for purchase in Sam's Club stores at a certain times such as the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.

This year marks TCL's start at focusing on branding. It announced the naming of TCL Chinese Theater in January at the CES.

In April, TCL launched a global tie-in with Iron Man 3 as part of its entertainment marketing. Around the same time, it became a regular buy at Sam's Club and other big chains such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy.

Growing in the US market comes with growing pains. One of the biggest challenges is product returns, Mao explained. The US market is different from China in that it allows product returns without any reason. "Customers can easily buy a TV, watch for a couple of months and return it," she said. To solve the issue, "I would give a certain percentage to retailers to take care of returns", she said.

Currently in the US market, Samsung, Sony and LG are regarded as the tier-one brands, followed by domestic Vizio. TCL and all others share the tier-three platform.

To become the next Samsung, TCL will — over the next three to five years — focus on technology innovation, building brand image and optimizing user experience, while developing more channels, Mao said.

In 2010, TCL sales split 50-50 between online and in-store. So far in 2013, in-store sale account for about 80 percent of sales.

"No matter how successful you've been, you have to start all over again as an elementary school student when you come to tackle the US market," which is 40 million TV sets, said Mao.

In the TV and electronics industry, "whoever wins the US, wins the world", she added.

Backed by a lab in the Silicon Valley that TCL set up in 2004 when they first arrived in the US, TCL TV is equipped to support functions such as Instant Buy — a feature that lets you pause and search for whatever you saw on TV and order it online — and PBO (Personal Box Office).

The 10-year-long naming rights for the TCL Chinese Theater cost Mao around $10 million.

"We're for sure not only selling TV," Mao said.

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