MANILA - College student Shin Tiongquico jostles for space with hundreds others as she rummages through a dizzying array of marked-down clothes in search of the perfect white hoodie for her next "cosplay" adventure.
It's a routine shopping excursion for Tiongquico, who admits to spending at least P2,000 a month in Forever21, H&M and Zara, while swearing off home-grown labels like Bench and Penshoppe.
Consumer optimism in the Philippines is the highest in the world as the economy booms and with more people willing to save less to keep their wardrobes updated, according to a Nielsen study.
But Filipino retailers concede foreign labels are cashing in more as the US, European and Japanese brands occupy the largest spaces in malls that also attract the most foot traffic.
"I'm more inclined to foreign brands due to quality. I don't mind spending more if the quality is better anyway," Tiongquico told ABS-CBN News during a recent Forever21 mega sale.
Financial adviser Cory Villareal was in the same sale event to buy thick clothes for her next trip, something local retailers don't offer.
"The choices (in local brands) are quite limited. Here, every season, there's always something new unlike with local brands, I think they're left behind already in terms of design," she told ABS-CBN News.
Forever21 got a head start even before it opened its first Manila store in 2010, as Filipinos who shop in its overseas outlets show off their fashion haul when they get home, said marketing manager Merell Beltran.
"So definitely, when we came, a lot of people were so excited because they don't even have to fly out," Beltran told ABS-CBN News.
"A strength of Forever21 is the fact that we give you what's trending in the season and we give it to you really fast. Our ability to sell our products at very affordable prices is also a strength," she said.
Robust sales has emboldened the brand to open outlets in the provinces, she said.
LOCAL FIGHTS BACK
At least one group will petition mall owners to revamp their layouts and allot ground floor spaces to local brands.
"Filipinos will go to foreign retailers anyway but if they will have to pass by the local retailers first, the local brands will have a chance," Philippine Retailers Association chairman emeritus Samie Lim told ABS-CBN News.
At SM Megamall, the country's largest, a gleaming new building called "Fashion Hall" houses multi-level spaces for Japan's Uniqlo and European brands H&M and Zara. Bench and other local brands occupy smaller spaces at the mall's older areas.
Uniqlo and Forever21 in the Philippines are operated by SM Retail.
Filipino brand Bench is expanding overseas, showing how local retailers are offsetting the sales slowdown by going abroad, said Philippine Retailers Association president Paul Santos.
Bench Body showcased its printed briefs and boxers at New York Fashion Week last July. It is also available in China.
"That's a new strategy to compete with foreign competition. If foreign brands come in to sell to Filipinos, local brands will go abroad to sell to foreigners," Santos told ABS-CBN News.
For Rustan's Supercenters CEO Irwin Lee, the best counter-attack would be to have better products.
"Wide assortment is good for everyone. What local brands have to do is to step up. The story of how Jollibee has stood its ground despite McDonald's (prove) there's room for everyone," Lee said.
Homegrown Jollibee boasts of being the only fastfood company to have beaten McDonalds, with its menu more attuned to local tastes.
Tiongquico the cosplayer said better value for money would make her rethink buying Filipino.
"If they can make the quality better, I'd reconsider buying again from local shops," she said.