Some of the world's finest chocolatiers have set up shop on the mainland in recent years, hoping to capitalise on the country's hunger for luxury goods. But to what extent sweet-toothed mainlanders will be tempted by premium chocolate, and how big the market will be, remains to be seen.
In September, Belgian luxury chocolatier Godiva opened its flagship store at Sanlitun Village, an upmarket shopping centre in Beijing. The 130-square-metre boutique with a cafe on the second floor was Godiva's fourth retail outlet in the capital; since then, three more stores have opened in the city, all in prime locations.
"Many of our customers have either heard of our chocolate from friends or have tasted it while overseas," says store manager Susan Tie.
Godiva arrived on the mainland in 2009. Now it has 36 stores in 13 cities. For Lunar New Year, the company launched several gift sets for the Asian market featuring tea-flavoured chocolates and snake designs.
"For me, Godiva means premium chocolate with a long history," says 28-year-old Tanis Liu, who first came across the brand as a student in London. Liu has been a frequent customer to the store since it opened, visiting once or twice a month; on each visit, he spends about 1,000 yuan (HK$1,235). Today, Liu buys a red fabric luxury gift box containing 30 assorted chocolates and truffles for a friend. The box costs 750 yuan. (The mainland imposes a 10 per cent tariff on imported chocolate, so the same gift box costs HK$750 at Godiva's online shop in Hong Kong.)
Like Godiva, Jean-Paul Hévin, an award-winning French chocolatier with four boutiques in Paris and three in Hong Kong, has also noticed the growing appetite among China's wealthy for premium chocolate. "Mainland consumers visit our Hong Kong shops and Paris shops," says Olivia Niddam, China brand manager.
At present, Jean-Paul Hévin has one boutique at Shanghai's International Financial Centre Mall, which opened in March. Catering to high-income office workers, Hévin uses Eastern ingredients such as Chinese ginger (galangal) or Sichuan pepper in the ganache for its Lunar New Year bonbons.
Niddam says the company sees growth potential in China and plans to open more boutiques in major cities. But compared with luxury brands such as Hugo Boss, Armani and Dunhill, all of which have more than 100 outlets, the growth in fine chocolate seems less impressive.
Liu thinks this is because Chinese shoppers have little interest in quality chocolate. "Many buy famous brand bags, clothes or cosmetics mainly for showing off. Luxury chocolate cannot serve that purpose; it is not something they can wear for others to see," he says.
Valrhona, a French luxury chocolate brand which prides itself on its 91 years of producing single-origin dark chocolate, arrived on the mainland in 2000. Pierre Tabarie, brand manager for Asia-Pacific, says business in China is growing but there has not been a boom. "It's easier to buy a bag which you can show off," he says. "Chocolate is more complex. It is not part of Chinese culture. It takes time for Chinese people to get it and like it."
However, Tabarie does not agree that the Chinese have been slow to try chocolate. "This is a misconception. There is a lot of confectionery being sold in China, very sweet and mainly sugar and vegetable oil with little cocoa content," he says. "But Chinese are slowly dipping into pure chocolate and will come to appreciate what is good." Valrhona mainly supplies chefs at five-star hotels in Beijing and Shanghai, but plans to open a large retail space this year.