Anita Shum, a 42 year old Hong Kong entrepreneur, remembers visiting Chicks stores with her mother since she was shorter than the glass counters from behind which salesmen carefully took out and unpacked products upon request.
For young Shum, the store environment emanated seriousness. She was never allowed to touch the products, since they were kept in glass cabinets, beyond everyone’s reach except that of the salesman.
A young Terry Tam, a member of the family behind the Chicks brand, sits on the glass-fronted displays that Shum remembers from her childhood. Image courtesy of Chicks.
Cathy Law, Shum’s mother, used to take her to the Chicks store as a matter of course at every change of season, to buy new sets of underwear for her father, Bill Shum. As a little girl, the Chicks logo at the time – a picture of three chicks – caught her interest, and her earliest memory of Chicks is wheeling around the glass cabinets and watching the new underwear being taken out.
Curious about how her parents were introduced to the brand, she asked her father how he came across Chicks. Bill’s baffled answer was, “Because everybody knows about it!”
According to Bill, every one in Hong Kong knows about Chicks – at its peak, the company was the most established and well-known brand available in Hong Kong.
“It’s almost like an icon, representing underwear. If you were looking for underwear, you would look for Chicks,” says Shum.
The company’s old logo was a picture of three chicks. The brand’s current logo uses the chick that is looking up, as a representation of looking for opportunities in the future. Image courtesy of Sing Tao Daily.
Over time, the regular visit to the Chicks store became an opportunity for Shum to spend quality time with her mother. Both of them came to see it as mother-daughter bonding time – a little family tradition that both of them expected and enjoyed.
“You know, the weather’s changing. Let’s get something for Dad and let’s get something for my kids,” Shum remembers her mother saying.
Creating and maintaining brand loyalty
In winter, while the average temperature in Hong Kong usually doesn’t dip too low, it can sometimes get fairly chilly. In 2020, the coldest day recorded was 10.3°C. However, since Hong Kong homes aren’t centrally heated, and room heaters aren’t always used, woolen underwear was a popular way of keeping oneself warm.
As a little girl, Shum was not a fan of woolen underwear.
“It’s just like sweaters, you know, it gets a little bit prickly,” she says. “The first time you wear it, you kind of like have this really tight feeling. But then every time you wear it, it gets softer and softer. And after a few days, you don’t want to let go of it,” she adds.
When it had reached this ideal stage of softness, Shum says she was reluctant to change her underwear and let her mother wash it, since it had become so supremely comfortable.
A busy Chicks storefront in the brand’s heyday. Year unknown. Image courtesy of Chicks.
Most children don’t have the option of choosing their own underwear – parents do the choosing for them. But even as an adult under her own steam, and despite having to break in every new pair of woolen underwear, Shum never switched brands: the very definition of brand loyalty.
Chicks has been tattooed in Shum’s mind as a brand that’s a “staple for kids” since childhood. The brand loyalty handed down from mother to daughter has kept Shum a loyal customer of Chicks – she now routinely visits the store to buy underwear for her children.
“When there’s something that you’ve always used, you’re [not likely to] change it for your kids, because you think it’s also good,” she says.
Shum says she has never come across any negative news about Chicks, solidifying her belief that the brand’s quality has never decreased. Chicks’ primary brand standpoint is the superior quality of its products, with sustainably-grown fabric from Cotton USA and Lenzing Modal, a completely biodegradable fabric made from Austrian beech wood. Shum believes the absence of negative news “proves that [Chicks is] doing something right.”
A local business with strong values
In Hong Kong, which has one of the highest rents in the world, it is not easy for brands to survive. As a born-and-raised Hong Konger, Shum also feels the need to support local Hong Kong brands.
“Just purely as a Hong Kong person, you want to continue to support a Hong Kong brand, that is a Hong Kong homegrown good quality, family household name,” she says.
“It’s representative of the hard working Hong Kong spirit, you know, never give up on good quality and Hong Kong traditions,” she adds
A collection of old labels on Chicks clothing, some of them bearing the words Chun Au Knitting Factory – the brand’s previous name. Image courtesy of Chicks.
Unlike Shum, who grew to love using old woolen underwear, her father would not exchange his white cotton underwear for any other brand or fabric. He accumulated countless numbers of them over the years.
Since the cotton grew so soft and comfortable after being used well, Shum says that her father preferred his old, used cotton underwear, even when her mother bought him new ones every season. He went on to use some of them for decades.
Even when they are worn out, Shum says that the quality of the Chicks cotton is unsurpassed. When her father could finally be persuaded to part with his worn-out cotton underwear, it would be repurposed for use in dusting or as kitchen rags, and continue to be used for years more.
Changing with time
In the 1950s, Chicks was expensive, and Shum’s family couldn’t afford it. It was only in the early 1970s that Shum’s family started using Chicks. Despite this time gap, Shum’s family has now been using Chicks products for more than 40 years.
Over those years, Shum’s relationship with the brand has changed from accompanying her mother as a child, to visiting the Chicks store with her own children. In the process, she has watched the brand and the company evolve.
The whole shopping experience has changed, she says, primarily since everything is tangible and she can freely, touch, feel, and see how things look in front of a mirror.
Her children, on the other hand, enjoy the experience of shopping at Chicks stores because of the different themes – this year, Chicks had a crossover theme with different characters in popular culture.
In Hong Kong, where retail shops are always around the corner, ecommerce is comparatively less popular than other countries. However, Shum’s family has switched to online shopping this year because of Covid-19 lockdowns. Luckily, thanks to the current Chicks leadership – the fourth-generation heirs to this nostalgic heritage brand – she’s still able to continue buying from her favorite brand of underwear online.
Shum’s story, told in loving detail and with a great deal of nostalgia, is a case in point for why businesses who manage to build up brand loyalty in their customers are able to survive changing times and come out stronger at the other end.
Chicks, for one, has been quick to think up new ways to appeal to both older clientele and children alike, but the world is moving toward a time when a brand’s trustworthiness and values are the most important attributes it can have. Their commitment to quality and ethics may soon make them the most well-known, iconic brand for young, modern consumers as well.
This article was written in partnership with Chicks.