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American Companies That Failed in China

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American Companies That Failed in China

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American Companies That Failed in China

For decades, China has been a top priority for American companies looking to expand.

This is because the country’s middle class is simply enormous, growing from 3.1% to 50.8% of the country’s total population between the years 2000 and 2018. According to Brookings, there are now at least 700 million people in China’s middle class, and this group has never had more disposable income to spend on consumer goods and services.

Despite the size and potential of the market, China is not an easy place for foreign businesses to enter. As this infographic shows, many of America’s biggest names eventually admitted defeat.

Companies by Tenure

The following table lists the tenures of every company included in the graphic.

It’s worth noting that Google’s parent company, Alphabet, still maintains a physical presence in China. Google’s services were banned by the Chinese government in 2010.

CompanyEnter DateExit DateTenure in months
eBayJuly 2003December 200641
AmazonAugust 2004July 2019178
Yahoo!September 1999November 2021266
Best BuyMay 2006March 201158
The Home DepotDecember 2006September 201269
GoogleJanuary 2006March 201050
Forever 21 (1st attempt)June 2008June 200912
Forever 21 (2nd attempt)December 2011April 201988
Forever 21 (3rd attempt)August 2021OngoingOngoing
GrouponMarch 2011June 201215
UberJuly 2014August 201625
Macy'sAugust 2015December 201840
LinkedInFebruary 2014October 202192

Dates were gathered from various media reports and sources. There may be small deviations from when a company actually entered or exited.

The reasons for why these companies withdrew are surprisingly similar, and can be broken down into two broad categories.

Retailers Fail to Adapt

Failing to adapt to the cultural differences of Chinese consumers is a common mistake. Here’s how two American retailers learned this lesson the hard way.

Best Buy

Best Buy struggled because Chinese consumers were not willing to pay a premium for brand-name electronics. Local retailers could often source similar (or counterfeit) goods for much cheaper, and undercut Best Buy’s prices.

“Why buy a Sony DVD player or Nokia phone at Best Buy when you can pay less for the exact same product at a local store?”
– Shaun Rein, China Market Research Group

Best Buy also made the mistake of bringing over its large flagship stores, which were out of reach for most consumers. Due to severe traffic congestion, locals preferred smaller shops that were closer to home.

Home Depot

The Home Depot expanded into China around the same time as Best Buy, but unfortunately it was another cultural mismatch.

Home Depot failed to acknowledge that “do it yourself” repairs are not a strong cultural match for China. Labor costs are relatively low, so rather than do the work themselves, many homeowners prefer to rather hire someone else to do it. On the other side of the equation, the American brand failed to win over contractors doing the repairs and renovations.

The Home Depot’s product offerings were also left unchanged from America, making them a poor match for local tastes. As a point of comparison, IKEA has had a presence in China since 1998, and continues to open new stores to this day.

Tech Firms Clash with Regulators

Uber’s experiences in China make a good case study on how American tech firms struggle to succeed in Asia’s biggest economy.

For starters, breaking into the Chinese market was incredibly expensive. Uber spent billions on subsidies to attract customers and drivers, and losses were quickly piling up. To make matters worse, domestic rivals like DiDi were also handing out subsidies.

On the operational side, Uber ran into several hurdles. To avoid issues with China’s data localization laws, the company needed servers on Chinese soil. Its navigation provider, Google Maps, also had limited accuracy in the country. This left Uber with no choice but to partner with Baidu, a Chinese tech company.

The final straw, however, was likely a set of impending regulations which targeted the ride-hailing industry. Under these rules, Uber risked losing control of its data, and would need both provincial and national regulatory approvals for its activities. Even further, subsidies would also no longer be allowed.

Uber realized that doing business in China was unsustainable, but its exit wasn’t exactly a failure. In 2016, Uber sold its assets to rival DiDi and took an 18.8% stake in the company. Ironically, DiDi is now embroiled in a conflict with Chinese regulators over its listing on the NYSE.

The Tech Fallout Continues

Since Uber’s departure, the Chinese government has increased their grip over the tech industry. This has driven more American firms out of the country, including Yahoo and LinkedIn, which is now owned by Microsoft.

Both firms announced their withdrawals in 2021 and were rather clear about why they made the decision. Yahoo cited its commitment to a “free and open” internet, while LinkedIn says its decision was due to a “considerably more difficult operating environment and higher regulatory requirements”.

Given the geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China, companies that generate data (often seen as a national security concern) are likely to continue facing regulatory hurdles.

Outside of tech, China is still a massive opportunity for American businesses. By 2027, the country’s middle class is expected to reach 1.2 billion people, or one quarter of the global total.

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Real Estate

Charted: U.S. Median House Prices vs. Income

We chart the ever-widening gap between median incomes and the median price of houses in America, using data from the Federal Reserve from 1984 to 2022.

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A cropped chart with the ever-widening gap between median house prices vs. income in America, using data from the Federal Reserve from 1984 to 2022.

Houses in America Now Cost Six Times the Median Income

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

As of 2023, an American household hoping to buy a median-priced home, needs to make at least $100,000 a year. In some cities, they need to make nearly 3–4x that amount.

The median household income in the country is currently well below that $100,000 threshold. To look at the trends between median incomes and median house prices through the years, we charted their movement using the following datasets data from the Federal Reserve:

Importantly this graphic does not make allowances for actual household disposable income, nor how monthly mortgage payments change depending on the interest rates at the time. Finally, both datasets are in current U.S. dollars, meaning they are not adjusted for inflation.

Timeline: Median House Prices vs. Income in America

In 1984, the median annual income for an American household stood at $22,420, and the median house sales price for the first quarter of the year came in at $78,200. The house sales price-to-income ratio stood at 3.49.

By pure arithmetic, this is the most affordable houses have been in the U.S. since the Federal Reserve began tracking this data, as seen in the table below.

A hidden caveat of course, was inflation: running rampant towards the end of the 70s and the start of the 80s. While it fell significantly in the next five years, in 1984 the 30-year fixed rate was close to 14%, meaning a significant chunk of household income went to interest payments.

DateMedian House
Sales Price
Median Household
Income
Price-to-Income Ratio
1984-01-01$78,200$22,4203.49
1985-01-01$82,800$23,6203.51
1986-01-01$88,000$24,9003.53
1987-01-01$97,900$26,0603.76
1988-01-01$110,000$27,2304.04
1989-01-01$118,000$28,9104.08
1990-01-01$123,900$29,9404.14
1991-01-01$120,000$30,1303.98
1992-01-01$119,500$30,6403.90
1993-01-01$125,000$31,2404.00
1994-01-01$130,000$32,2604.03
1995-01-01$130,000$34,0803.81
1996-01-01$137,000$35,4903.86
1997-01-01$145,000$37,0103.92
1998-01-01$152,200$38,8903.91
1999-01-01$157,400$40,7003.87
2000-01-01$165,300$41,9903.94
2001-01-01$169,800$42,2304.02
2002-01-01$188,700$42,4104.45
2003-01-01$186,000$43,3204.29
2004-01-01$212,700$44,3304.80
2005-01-01$232,500$46,3305.02
2006-01-01$247,700$48,2005.14
2007-01-01$257,400$50,2305.12
2008-01-01$233,900$50,3004.65
2009-01-01$208,400$49,7804.19
2010-01-01$222,900$49,2804.52
2011-01-01$226,900$50,0504.53
2012-01-01$238,400$51,0204.67
2013-01-01$258,400$53,5904.82
2014-01-01$275,200$53,6605.13
2015-01-01$289,200$56,5205.12
2016-01-01$299,800$59,0405.08
2017-01-01$313,100$61,1405.12
2018-01-01$331,800$63,1805.25
2019-01-01$313,000$68,7004.56
2020-01-01$329,000$68,0104.84
2021-01-01$369,800$70,7805.22
2022-01-01$433,100$74,5805.81

Note: The median house sale price listed in this table and in the chart is from the first quarter of each year. As a result the ratio can vary between quarters of each year.

The mid-2000s witnessed an explosive surge in home prices, eventually culminating in a housing bubble and subsequent crash—an influential factor in the 2008 recession. Subprime mortgages played a pivotal role in this scenario, as they were issued to buyers with poor credit and then bundled into seemingly more attractive securities for financial institutions. However, these loans eventually faltered as economic circumstances changed.

In response to the recession and to stimulate economic demand, the Federal Reserve reduced interest rates, consequently lowering mortgage rates.

While this measure aimed to make homeownership more accessible, it also contributed to a significant increase in housing prices in the following years. Additionally, a new generation entering the home-buying market heightened demand. Simultaneously, a scarcity of new construction and a surge in investors and corporations converting housing units into rental properties led to a shortage in supply, exerting upward pressure on prices.

As a result, median house prices are now nearly 6x the median household income in America.

How Does Unaffordable Housing Affect the U.S. Economy?

When housing costs exceed a significant portion of household income, families are forced to cut back on other essential expenditures, dampening consumer spending. Given how expanding housing supply helped drive U.S. economic growth in the 20th century, the current constraints in the country are especially ironic.

Unaffordable housing also stifles mobility, as individuals may be reluctant to relocate for better job opportunities due to housing constraints. On the flip side, many cities are seeing severe labor shortages as many lower-wage workers simply cannot afford to live in the city. Both phenomena affect market efficiency and productivity growth.

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