Byline: SAMANTHA MARSHALL, with contributions from KATHERINE WEISMAN, Paris
HONG KONG -- Since Guerlain first stepped into mainland China in February 1993, the French fragrance and cosmetics house has expanded to 15 doors and has almost doubled its sales.
Guerlain products are now distributed in Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjian, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, which Philippe Guerlain, chairman of Guerlain (Asia Pacific), calls the "five most important cities in China."
The 166-year-old fragrance and cosmetics firm will open another counter in Shanghai by September and may build a L'Institute Guerlain freestanding boutique there.
The company plans to operate in 40 doors in China by the end of 1995, Guerlain said during a recent interview here.
Chinese sales are expected to total $4.5 million this year, the company said, and grow to $9.1 million for 1996.
The main challenge to doing business on the mainland, Guerlain said, is distinguishing the company from other French luxury firms, such as Christian Dior and Chanel.
"To let [consumers] know the difference, we have to build up our corporate image through our counters, using our name, products and corporate colors," Guerlain said.
Guerlain's promotion drive will include a book on the house of Guerlain, published in Chinese.
While many luxury goods firms have found Chinese consumers unable to afford their steep prices, Guerlain said lipstick, which retails for about $21, and a 15-ml. bottle of Samsara, which retails for $109, have been the bestsellers.
These results are surprising because in most Asian markets skin care is the strongest category.
While enthusiastic about his company's expansion, Guerlain acknowledged that the hoopla about China is somewhat premature.
"We know very well that everything is moving very slowly in this part of the world," he said. "People who predicted that the market will take off in the next two to three years are wrong. China has enormous reserves for the century to come, and it will take a century, or at least tens of decades.
"We are working only in the maritime fringe," Guerlain continued. "Imagine how long it will take to work our way to Xinjiang, on the western fringe. But we will do it, step by step."
Still, Guerlain said that now is the right time to start, noting, "Five years ago it would have been too early. Five years from now it would be too late."