Valentine’s chocolate defies recession

Cheap, expensive or made at home — Cupid says it's all good

by Mariko Kato

As many businesses continue to shake their heads over how tough it is to make sales in these financially difficult times, “cheaper is better” is the strategy of the day, with shops slicing prices for everything from “gyudon” (beef on rice) to jeans.

But one thing consumers — especially female ones — will loosen their purse strings for are those little drops of heaven that are sure to melt their darlings’ hearts come Feb. 14, say chocolate retailers, whose customer-oriented strategies have seen both luxury brands and affordable sweets fly off the shelves at equal speed.

With Valentine’s Day chocolates being subjected to numerous trends in recent years, from kits to make sweets at home to salt-flavored treats, orthodox quality brands face tough competition. But they remain popular among women who can’t resist foreign craftsmanship and delectable flavors, if the Salon du Chocolat international chocolate show is anything to go by.

This year’s sales at the annual exhibition, held in Tokyo’s premier Isetan department store in Shinjuku and showcasing around 70 chocolatiers from Europe and elsewhere, were the highest on record, according to Miho Okada, a spokeswoman for Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings.

“Sales were much better than last year, with a double-digit percentage increase,” she said of the six-day show that closed Monday, without disclosing exact figures.

The exhibition is also held in Paris, New York, Shanghai, Beijing and Moscow, and occasionally in Kyoto, Fukuoka, Nagoya, Sendai and Sapporo.

According to Okada, the recession has done nothing to spoil consumers’ appetite for high-quality chocolate, with the buzz extending beyond hardcore fans this year. This follows the recent consumer trend where couples and families prefer to stay at home rather than go out, and so were interested in buying luxury chocolates to enjoy together, she said.

As a result, chocolates fared well regardless of whether they were cheap or expensive, with some brands selling out over the weekend, according to Okada. Among the popular selections were lemon-flavored pieces by French chocolatier Christian Camprini, who is based in remote mountains near Cote d’Azur and appeared at the show for the first time this year.

Frequent favorite Bernachon, a family business in Lyon, France, that focuses on the quality of cacao, also sold out its stock, Okada said.

Okada noted that the majority of female customers appeared to be buying the chocolates — priced at around ¥4,000 for 12 pieces — for their own consumption rather than for loved ones, although some came as a couple or with their family.

Boyfriends and spouses are more likely to be remembered at the standard annual display of chocolates on the food floor of Isetan, Okada said. The special section started up Tuesday for the runup to the special day.

“This year’s theme is to return to the customers’ mind-set, how they must be feeling when they pick and choose chocolate for their special person,” she said. “So we are selling chocolates that women will think are cute and catch their eye, such as ones that are colored or wrapped in attractive packaging.”

The focus on cuteness is a departure from previous Valentine’s Day selections that carried over the luxury theme from Salon du Chocolat. The goal this year is to lure those customers who are less keen to part with their cash, Okada said. But the store does not intend to reduce prices or make special offers and expects sales to match previous years, she added without revealing sales targets.

New products on sale this year are chocolates that contain accessories the male recipient can give back to the woman, aimed at encouraging communication between the pair, according to Okada.

“There are chocolate boxes tied with a ribbon that is also a hair band, and chocolates that are packed in makeup pouches,” she said.

A classier example is a gift box by chocolatier Del Rey that contains four pieces of chocolate and a diamond, which the man can take to the Belgian firm’s shop in Ginza, where it can be set in a necklace. The gift box costs ¥9,800, and getting the necklace made costs ¥21,000.

Meanwhile, Tokyu Hands Inc. has adopted the philosophy of less is more when touting its wide selection of do-it-yourself chocolate kits. By making each product smaller and cheaper than in previous years, the store hopes customers will end up piling more items into their baskets, according to spokesman Ichiro Kokubu.

“With one kit you can only make one type of chocolate, so by reducing the size and the price, we’re hoping customers will end up buying more. These days more people want to make several chocolates, customize them, and give them as a set,” he said.

This year, the number of kits priced higher than ¥1,000 was reduced, replaced by cheaper kits costing between ¥500 and ¥700, he said.

Tokyu Hands stocks about 350 types of DIY Valentine’s Day products, ranging from complete kits to toppings and other ingredients. It also offers around 500 types of cooking utensils, including cutouts in various shapes, and 1,300 wrapping items.

Because Valentine’s Day this year falls on a Sunday, Tokyu Hands is counting on girls to buy kits and use the day off from school to show off their final products to each other, Kokubu said.

A customer in her 20s at the Shibuya Tokyu Hands earlier this week said she was planning to bake cookies and macaroons for her friends and chocolate muffins for her boyfriend.

“The instructions on the kits look easy to follow, so I’m looking forward to trying them out,” the woman, who gave her name as Mika, said.

According to Kanako Sasaki of the Shibuya store’s sales promotion division, the number of home kits was increased this year, with macaroons headlining the selection. They have been selling well compared with ready-made chocolates sold on the same floor, she said.

The average female customer in her teens or 20s spends between ¥2,000 and ¥3,000, including on wrapping, Sasaki said.

The store’s strategy has worked, with more products being sold than last year so far, according to Kokubu. But he added that because of the lower prices of individual products, the overall value of sales may not have increased that much.

In the long term, Tokyu Hands hopes that women, hooked by the fun and excitement of making chocolate, will be impressed by the range of products on offer and return to make more purchases next year.

The store witnessed strong loyalty and a love of making things among female customers when kits for make-it-yourself accessories shaped like sweets became popular last autumn, according to Kokubu.

“These women, having discovered the joy of making fake sweets, have returned in recent days to purchase kits for making real ones,” he said.

“Such artificial sweets are now more than just a boom and have become a consistently popular pastime, and we’re hoping those customers will also enjoy making real chocolate and come back to buy more kits each year,” he said.