By  on April 25, 2007

HO CHI MINH CITY — Bustling, tree-lined Dong Khoi Street, the central shopping hub of Vietnam's economic capital, buzzes with sidewalk hawkers, busy tourist stores and the constant thrum of passing motorbikes.

But recently there have been some changes to the landscape. At the corner of Le Loi Street, a one-story-high Louis Vuitton advertisement dominates the facade of Opera View, a retail complex opening next month that will house the brand's second Vietnam boutique as well as stores such as Burberry, Ermenegildo Zegna and Lacoste. Just down the street, there is a promise of more changes to come: An enormous brown storefront proclaims "Gucci: Opening Soon."

Vietnam is quickly becoming one of the new hot spots for retailers, but the development signals a more significant trend. Brands in Asia, previously focused on building up their presence in major hubs such as Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore, are putting more emphasis on expanding into cities that were once regarded as second- or third-tier. Markets like Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Jakarta, Indonesia, and — even more prominently — more than a dozen cities across China, such as Kunming, Shenyang and Chengdu, are now garnering keen attention from brands eager to infiltrate every corner of the increasingly wealthy region.

"Many of these cities are becoming so important that it is not accurate to classify them as ‘secondary' anymore," noted Nash Benjamin, chief executive officer of FJ Benjamin Holdings, a Singapore-based firm that operates various retail outlets across Southeast Asia for brands such as Gap, Guess and Celine, and will launch the region's first Banana Republic store in Jakarta on May 11. "The situation is dramatically different than it was five years ago. They are strong markets and they are still growing."

But the rapid development also brings new hurdles, particularly from a marketing perspective. With so many countries in development and retailers moving in, brands are constantly faced with finding the best way to stand out among the pack, particularly to consumers who may only be marginally aware of them. To reach out to new customers, many brands have focused on localized efforts — such as in-store events, promotions and other activities.

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