Ultra-luxury fireplaces and wood burning stoves may not sound like the obvious things to sell in China, which has little or no tradition of decorative heaters – and no wood to burn in them if it did. But if Starbucks can make itself almost a household name in a country that doesn’t like the taste of coffee, then anything is possible.
Chesney’s, the high end fireplace and stove brand which opens two large new showrooms this week in Shanghai and Beijing, is hoping that rich Chinese have all the famous-label bling they can handle, and are ready to move on to subtler ways to spend money.
For China is rapidly become the land of the niche luxury brand. Tap any market researcher on the shoulder, and he will tell you that Chinese consumers are reaching a state of maturity where they want to express their individuality through the brands they buy – and not just show off the pricetag.
Chesney’s is nothing if not niche: its Shanghai showroom, which opens today, looks more like an art gallery than a furniture store, with its location in the chic new Red Town Creativity Centre, at the trendy end of Shanghai’s famous commercial street, Huaihai Road.
There’s only one problem: where is the market? “The challenge we have here is that there is no tradition of decorative heating appliances,” says Paul Chesney, the company’s managing director. “There isn’t the architectural tradition that exists in Europe and the States, (where) you put a fireplace in a room for heating, but also as an architectural focus, you group your furniture around it,” he says. “The challenge we have in China is to create demand within what is essentially a vacuum”.
Chesney shows off what he thinks could be one of the brand’s best sellers in China: a Rmb129,000 ($21,000) electric fireplace, complete with fake logs and fake smoke, but hand carved in real white Carrara marble. The fireplace “surround” is intricately detailed in 18th century style, complete with Ionic columns. Just the kind of thing that a Chinese millionaire might well want – though the fake Monet above the mantelpiece that was in the showroom might not give the right impression.
Chesney says that the fireplace – which is operated by remote control and vaporises water to create the effect of smoke rising from the imitation logs – is near the top of the Chesney price range in China, where prices are likely to be higher than New York, just as New York prices are higher than London. And for those who really want niche to be niche, Chesney’s also does bespoke fireplaces. Its products range from classical to contemporary, but they all recreate a “western” look that he says is popular with the kind of Chinese consumer who has enough money to build a mansion to put it in.
Chesney’s is aiming to piggyback on China’s culture of the family, to create a whole new “culture of the fireplace” with family gathered round it. Stranger things have happened: these days more and more Chinese visit Starbucks not just for the ambience, but for the bitter brew itself. If they can sell coffee to a nation of tea drinkers, selling the odd Carrara marble fireplace with fake steam should be a breeze…