A small candle company finds glowing success on both sides of the Pacific

Founded in 1994 by wife-and-husband team Mei Xu and David Wang, Pacific Trade International, Inc. (PTI) has grown from a makeshift candle lab in a basement in Annapolis, Maryland, to a thriving company with revenue from US wholesale operations of about $60 million in 2007. PTI partly owns three Asian manufacturing operations and in 2007 had sales of $20 million in Europe, $2 million in China, and $10 million in Australia, the Middle East, South Africa and South America combined.

Early days

As a recent graduate in New York in the early 1990s, Xu spent a lot of time window shopping. She liked the sleek, modern styles of designers like Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, but noticed that home furnishings and decor were dominated by traditional, ornate styles. Spotting an opportunity, she and her husband, an engineer by training, decided to “leap into the sea”—they quit their day jobs and set up their own company.

At first, they were not sure what product to sell, but in 1994, a trade show in North Carolina—where they won orders for $90,000 worth of candles from small stores—made the decision easy. Inspired by the natural beauty of the Chesapeake Bay near their home in Maryland, the couple created the Chesapeake Bay Candle brand. That same year, PTI received its first order from a major US retailer, Kirkland’s, Inc.

Xu knew that she had to offer new designs to keep customers coming back, but suppliers were unwilling to produce small custom orders. She turned to her Hangzhou- based sister, Li Xu, and proposed that they set up a factory to make candles of their own design. “Setting up the factory turned out to be a strategic decision, leading PTI to become the vertical company it is today—incorporating production, design, and research and development,” says Mei Xu. Since then, PTI’s product line has expanded to include more than 2,000 varieties of candles and accessories, including scented candles, reed diffusers, room sprays, and scented beads.

Importance of affordable design

Design lies at the heart of PTI’s success. Ever since she was a girl, Mei Xu has been interested in fashion and design. She seems to prefer clean lines and contemporary looks—a style evident in her company’s designs today. Many of her team’s designs are inspired by nature, with colors and textures that reflect the natural world.

Xu takes pride in the fact that PTI provides well-designed, high-quality products at an affordable price. As she puts it, “When I look back at our success, it’s really about style, scent, and ambience—it’s the collection of all three. It brings great satisfaction to all of us that we manage to bring great designs, great quality, and great styles to a lot of people. We probably have reached millions of families in the United States, Europe, and China with the type of design that is usually priced higher than most of the middle class can afford.” Xu says that design can help a company distinguish itself and make a connection with customers: “Design is a tool that companies can use to differentiate themselves and make a connection with consumers on an emotional level. Part of the reason for the iPod’s success is because it gives people a sense of aspiration, of owning something well done. They like to use it, and it becomes emotionally important to them. That’s what Chesapeake Bay is striving for. We pay close attention to the glass, the fragrance, the ribbon, the packaging we use in each product. Because through that detail, you tell a story, evoke the feelings you want your consumers to experience.”

Xu notes that one of the reasons that PTI has vibrant partnerships with both Target and Kohl’s after more than a decade is because these companies value what PTI brings to the table: good design at reasonable, but not rock bottom, prices.

A nose for profit

Consumers may not always burn a pretty candle, leaving it to be admired year round. But because scented candles release their fragrance through burning, customers burn the candles—and come back for more. (According to the National Candle Association, fragrance is the most important attribute for candle consumers.) As scented candles gained in popularity in the mid-1990s, PTI explored making them. There were two major problems, however. First, no one in China made scented candles at that time, and Xu herself did not know how to make them. Second, the fragranced oil needed to make scented candles was not produced in China, but in Europe and the United States. Though others questioned whether PTI could import fragranced oil to China, make scented candles, and export them to other parts of the world while still offering products at a reasonable price, the company decided to try it.

In 1995, Mei Xu found someone to teach her team how to make fragranced candles, and then went home to try it, using soup cans for molds. Little did she know she had forgotten to add a chemical that was necessary to make the candle wax blend smoothly with the fragranced oil. As a result, the candles came out not one uniform color, but with a snowflake effect. The unintended snowflake effect gave the candles a beautiful handmade look and distinguished Chesapeake Bay Candles from those of other vendors. They were a hit with buyers and soon appeared on the shelves of stores such as Bloomingdale’s Inc. and Nordstrom Inc.

Global inspiration

Mei Xu and her team constantly update their products with new textures, new shades of color, and new scent combinations—apples and ginger, or lavender with iris, for instance—and often travel to Europe, Asia, and around the United States for inspiration. Earlier in her career, Xu had worked as a consultant for the World Bank in Beijing. During that time, her work not only took her to countries such as India, Mongolia, and Bangladesh but introduced her to colleagues from around the world. This exposure to different places and people is highly valued at PTI, where designs reflect elements from around the globe.

From candles to home accessories

To handle growing demand and keep its product lines fresh, PTI opened a design center in Rockville, Maryland, in 1995 and a design and sourcing center in Shanghai in 2006 and began working with third-party distribution centers in California and Minnesota in 1997. In 1995, PTI established a joint venture in China, and now partly owns factories in Hangzhou, China, and in Haiphong, Vietnam. PTI also opened a showroom and sourcing center in Hong Kong in 2002. The company now employs nearly 2,000 people, most of whom work in the factories in China and Vietnam.

In 2005, Mei Xu launched Blissliving Home as a separate US company and brand focusing on luxurious, upscale bedding. Blissliving Home owns the worldwide brand license to the Blissliving Home brand and products and partially owns Blissliving Home Fashion Products (Hangzhou) Co. Ltd., which distributes products in China. Blissliving Home focuses on bedding but also sells candles and other accessories for the home. Both Blissliving Home and PTI may soon expand their product lines to include towels, bathroom accessories, and bedroom furniture.

Global sourcing

In 1994, PTI regarded China primarily as a manufacturing base and sourced items from the United States and Europe. Now, PTI sources and designs in China, though some inputs are sourced from other countries. Palm oil for candles may come from Malaysia and Indonesia, while fragranced oil is imported from Europe and the United States. Wicks and dyes are imported from Germany, as was the Hangzhou facility’s most expensive machine—the tea-light machine. The Blissliving Home line incorporates high-end cloth from around the world—Italian cotton and silk, Egyptian cotton, Indian silk, and Turkish cotton toweling—which is then made into sheets, duvet covers, pillowcases, and other items in China.

US sales take off

By 1996, PTI was shipping product worth $5-$6 million each year. In 1997, the company began working with Target Corp., and sales skyrocketed. That year, sales hit $8.4 million, nearly three times the goal Target had set for PTI products. That same year, Kohl’s contacted PTI and began selling Chesapeake Bay Candle products. In the United States, Chesapeake Bay products are sold through major retailers, such as Fred Meyer, Inc.; Inter IKEA Systems B.V.; JC Penney Corp., Inc.; Kohl’s Corp.; Pier 1 Imports, Inc.; and Target. In 2008, the company launched the Chesapeake Bay Signature Collection, sold direct on the Internet and by catalogue, as well as in boutique stores. Chesapeake Bay products are also sold in Europe and Australia through Carrefour SA, IKEA, Marks & Spencer Group plc, and Target Australia Pty Ltd.

Blissliving Home products are sold directly through freestanding boutiques and in department stores in China. In the United States and Canada, Blissliving Home products are sold online, through catalogues, and in boutiques and specialty stores.

Selling in China

China’s retail market tends to be skewed toward the top and the bottom. According to Mei Xu, most consumers are either looking for a bargain or want to show their status with an expensive purchase. PTI’s and Blissliving Home’s customers in China are mostly young people in their 20s who have not yet bought a home and are reluctant to spend a lot of money on decorating a rental unit. Many products, especially those in the Blissliving Home line, are priced beyond their means. In contrast, the brand’s US customers, who range in age from roughly 20 to 60, can afford the products. Moreover, US consumers of all ages seem to appreciate contemporary designs, while older Chinese consumers tend to prefer more traditional designs. As a result, PTI and Blissliving Home are caught in the middle of the market, in terms of price and consumer preferences.

Though China’s consumer market is growing as the country develops, its retail landscape is still highly fragmented. Unlike in the United States, where a few chains operate nationwide, each city in China has its own major department store. Most department stores lease space to vendors to set up boutiques within the store. Each vendor has its own inventory and fixtures, but payment goes through the department store. The department store usually sets a sales goal for each vendor and keeps a portion of sales revenue. Demand for retail space inside department stores has been so strong in recent years that at some stores vendors wait as long as five years for floor space, according to Xu.

Only a few Chinese stores have a nationwide presence. For instance, China’s second-largest retailer, Shanghai-based Bailian Group Co., Ltd., which is owned in part by the Shanghai government, owns 14 department stores in Shanghai and three in other provinces. Bailian is also developing malls in major Chinese cities. Even when dealing with Bailian, vendors must negotiate separately with each store. This stands in sharp contrast to how vendors work with major retailers in the United States, where a vendor negotiates with a single buyer to have its product placed in stores nationwide.

Another retail option in China is, of course, freestanding stores. The problem with this channel, according to Mei Xu, is that pedestrian shopping in China focuses on food and fashion, not home decor. Most people are out for a meal or a haircut, or are browsing for clothes, and are not thinking about home decor. As a result, Blissliving Home’s freestanding stores did not do very well.

Now Blissliving Home is experimenting with malls, which operate like US malls in that each store is individually owned. In China, malls are often devoted to a particular product, as Chinese consumers like to compare the quality and price of several products before buying. Blissliving Home’s first choice for placement of its products is a mall devoted to softer furnishings, such as bedding and curtains. “Furniture malls”—malls full of stores dedicated to home repair and decoration—are the next choice. (Most new housing units in China are sold as empty shells, without flooring, lighting, or bathroom or kitchen fixtures, so one-stop places to buy these items are popular.) Blissliving Home now has a presence in 15 traditional malls and 5 home furnishing malls. Including these outlets, the company directly owns four stores in Beijing, three in Shanghai, and three in Hangzhou and has 20 franchises in cities across China.

Blissliving Home also sells wholesale to companies who use candles as gifts or as employee incentives. The company is also working with hotels in the United States, such as St. Regis and W Hotels, which use its candles and bedding. The company hopes to place its products in more hotels and introduce them to spas.

Eco-friendly practices

Since the days when she worked as a World Bank consultant on water and sanitation projects, Mei Xu has been concerned about the environment, and her companies strive to use environmentally friendly practices whenever possible. They constantly seek ways to use less packaging and more recycled materials and encourage consumers to do the same. In its candles, PTI uses natural ingredients when possible. In 2008, it introduced a line of candles made largely of soy and palm oil instead of paraffin-based wax and plans to use more soy blends in future. The company is also working to eliminate acetate from its packaging.

The Blissliving Home line also incorporates eco-friendly practices when possible. Many of its products are made of organic cotton, and currently three collections are Oeko-Tex certified, meaning that the raw materials and chemicals used in production do not harm the environment or human health.

Xu explains further: “We look for partners in Europe and Asia that can produce organic products and eco-friendly dye—I’m not saying organic, because it’s difficult to make high-quality organic dye—but eco-friendly dye that minimizes risk to the environment. We do have organic bedding, but we can’t dye it. Instead, we use embroidery to decorate it, but so far it has not been very successful because of the lack of color. Color is essential to our business, so our next initiative is to find a partner with the technology who can meet our schedule demands.

In general, our company will adopt more technology and work with more vendors that are innovative in the environmental area to introduce sound and marketable products. That’s very important. It’s one thing to stay green, but it’s another to bring quality products. You don’t want bedding that will change color every time you wash it. That’s not quality. We’re trying to strike a balance, and we aim to bring the best environmental standards and technology to our candle and bedding products.”

Consumption boom

Though the current economic climate poses a challenge, over the longer term, China’s economic development and the rise of its middle class is fueling a consumption boom that bodes well for makers of consumer products. In addition, the growing sophistication of China’s middle class—gained through exposure to different ideas, styles, and fashions through better education, the Internet, and travel—also augur well for the sleek designs of Chesapeake Bay Candle and Blissliving Home.

[author] Virginia A. Hulme is editor of the CBR. [/author]

Posted by Virginia A. Hulme