Chocolate not yet China's cup of tea

BEIJING (AFP) - Michelangelo's David stands proud next to the Eiffel Tower in a Chinese display, flanked by the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army - all made of chocolate.

The edible exhibit reflects not only how badly confectionery sellers want to reach the world's most populous country, but also what tremendous effort it takes.

China's increasingly wealthy shoppers have enthusiastically embraced global trends from coffee to Hollywood films to smartphones, and become the world's largest market for goods from beer to cars.

Yet when it comes to chocolate the average Chinese - having little sweet tooth or familiarity with it - only consumes 100 grams a year, the equivalent of two Snickers bars.

By comparison the Japanese eat 11 times more chocolate, Americans 44 times, and Germans 82 times as much, market research firm Euromonitor said in a report in November.

"The chocolate market is in its infancy and it's still there even 30 years" after the country opened up to the world, said industry expert Lawrence Allen, adding that "it was totally foreign to the palate of the people at the time".

Overall retail sales in China have risen an average 17 per cent annually for the past five years and the fast-growing country's luxury market is projected to grow 20 per cent a year for the next decade.

That makes the expansion in chocolate sales - projected at 10 per cent through 2015 - look torpid by comparison.

But Allen, the author of Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds and Wallets of Chinese Consumers, and others are optimistic that the treat will take root in China as exposure spreads.

Mr Raphael Wermuth, spokesman for Swiss-based chocolate maker Barry Callebaut, cited the way China embraced the foreign habit of drinking coffee.

The trend has grown so popular - thanks largely to the cachet of coffee shops, rather than the taste of the drink - that China is set to become Starbucks' second-largest market next year.

Many companies are trying to capitalise on Chinese preferences for luxuries and gift-giving by rebranding chocolate as a premium indulgence, a classy present and a mark of taste and international flair.

The Italian brand Ferrero Rocher, which achieved fame in the West with its "ambassador's reception" advertisements, is set to enjoy the fastest jump in market share for the second year in a row in 2012, Euromonitor said in November.

It had 8.4 per cent of the Chinese market in 2012, up by almost a third in just two years.

The high-end Belgian brand Godiva said its lavish gift sets - created for specific holidays - have tapped into the tradition of exchanging presents.

"Chinese people are very much into gift-giving for all sorts of holidays and festivals," said its regional managing director John Holmberg. "We're having very, very good success with these key festivals with Chinese consumers."

For China's biggest holiday, the Chinese New Year that begins Feb 10,

Godiva's best-selling 18-piece gift box - featuring tea-flavoured ganache and snake designs representing the year's zodiac animal - sells for 488 yuan (S$97).

An "Overflowing Fortune" gift basket priced at 3,980 yuan includes a bottle of wine and dark chocolate syrup.

In Shanghai, the Chocolate Happy Land exhibition boasts edible re-creations of world-renowned icons of refinement, glamour and heritage, from a giant Mona Lisa and Marilyn Monroe to the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Winged Victory of Samothrace.

The rival Chocolate Wonderland fair offers a runway show featuring gowns with chocolate pieces and areas for couples to pose for photos nestled between the word "love" in English and a huge heart.

Both displays - which are fighting in court over claims of imitation - opened as temporary exhibits just in time for the prime gift-giving occasions of Chinese New Year and Valentine's Day.

At Wonderland visitors are told that chocolate serves as the perfect gift in many ways, with a pamphlet saying that different types convey different messages, much the way flowers do.

Dark chocolate, the leaflet explains, tells recipients that "I appreciate your independent spirit and hope I can become a partner worthy of your trust", while mint chocolate says: "You are the ideal lover of my dreams".

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