A vendor in Suzhou holds up two of the crabs which have made Yangcheng Lake famous across China. (Photo/Xinhua)
Chinese mitten crabs, or hairy crabs, from Yangcheng Lake in Jiangsu generate annual revenue of 15 billion yuan (US$2.34 billion), as the traditional autumn delicacy has become a luxury item following the industry's successful marketing efforts.
According to Beijing News, the first shipment of hairy crabs from the lake arrived in the capital on Sept. 17 this year and have been priced at over 300 yuan (US$47) per catty (500g) in Carrefour stores.
Specialty stores selling the crabs reopened after a long hiatus since last year's crab season, with customers amazed how sales of two to three months can support the full-year rent of these storefronts. Some suspect these rental costs have been passed on through the high crab prices.
"Every family in the Yangcheng Lake region is somewhat connected to the hairy crab," said Yang Weilong, head of the local industry association. "The sales this year are expected to reach 400-500 million yuan (US$62.5 million-$78.1 million)."
The area's crabs were already well-known across the country by the 1980s, but fishing did not expand to an industrial scale until 1992 when net enclosures were introduced. Currently, the region has an annual production of 2,200 tons.
Over a million visitors from home and abroad are drawn to the region, where a "city of crabs" has arisen with the rise of the tourism industry associated with the delicacy.
Although Yangcheng Lake crabs have become a brand in themselves, boosted by money spent on marketing by local governments, the association and mostly the companies involved in the business, one industry insider said the high prices have made the crab more of a seasonal gift.
Marketing expert Li Zhiqi said establishing a brand helps improve the image of a product and ensure profits, which is a step many local products cannot achieve in their efforts to expand to a wider market.
On the other hand, sales of crab coupons have become a new business in recent years as the number of vendors of these discount vouchers has reached 1,000-2,000 in Beijing alone. The vendors normally begin selling the vouchers in August, before the crabs hit the market.
Song Enfu, a manager at a seafood company that has specialty crab stores in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou, said the ratio of sales from coupons and from direct purchase is six to four, since the voucher is a more convenient option for customers buying the crabs as gifts.
Other businesses said Yangcheng Lake has become a marketplace rather than a crab producing area, as many vendors bring crabs caught elsewhere to the area to take advantage of the brand name. Hairy crabs are required to be farmed in the lake for six months to be called Yangcheng Lake crabs.
A lack of integration in the industry has hindered the public listing plan of companies in the hairy crab business, which account for half of total production. The situation also reflects the difficulties of more coordinated efforts to promote the brand, Yang Weilong of the local industry association said.
Yangcheng Lake crabs 陽澄湖大閘蟹