Cashing in on creativity

10:06, May 06, 2010      

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Box stores wrap art and commerce together in one package

Box stores - mini-stores or stalls within shopping areas - are increasingly emerging in China and helping thousands of designers find a balance between pursuing their artistic instincts and cashing in on their creativity.

One such store, Fengguo, is located in Joy City, a busy shopping center in Beijing's Xidan area where the 100-square-meter space is filled with 200 box stalls selling designers' original wares. Customers crowd the delicate store to browse and buy unique items ranging from emblems with popular slogans to handmade stuffed dolls.

"The items here are different from those sold in other stores, and I can find something special, but the prices are a bit expensive," said Hou Jie, a 21-year-old tourist from Anhui Province, who paid 20 yuan ($3) for a cell phone accessory made from a hand-painted Popsicle stick.

Selling novelty

Wang Sanshi, founder of Fengguo and an oil painter, opened the first box store in Beijing's Zhongguancun pedestrian street in September 2007.

Wang said his idea came from opening creative bazaars. "After positive feedback from organizing several bazaars in Beijing, I realized it might be a good idea to open a permanent venue for designers, and we can share costs and profits to reduce potential risks," he said.

In Fengguo's stores, designers can rent stalls ranging from 0.21 square meters to 0.8 square meters for between 30-1,500 yuan ($4.40-$220) per month. For every item sold, Fengguo keeps 25-30 percent of its revenues and gives the rest to the designers.

"Renting stalls lowers financial barriers for young designers to sell their items, especially university graduates," Wang said.

If designers want to sell their crafts at Fengguo's stores, they must first submit online applications. Three judges assess all submissions according to originality and small-scale production quality. Only submissions unanimously approved by the trio are eligible to rent stalls.

Wang said judges typically approve one out of every 10 applications. "Fengguo aims at achieving originality and high quality, but we can accept different design styles," he said.

A designer team, Liang Yan and Wu Wei sell their original Cottonhead brand that includes products from pen bags to stuffed dolls, in Fengguo's stores. "Our cooperation began with creative bazaars three years ago, and the box stalls are a good platform for fresh designers to display their works and test their commercial value at an early stage," Wu said.

But not all designers have pure business ambitions. "Some designers' works are really creative but they might not have much commercial value, and we leave 15 percent of our space in every store for these designers," Wang said.

Easy entry

After three years' development Fengguo has 14 stores in shopping plazas and tourist attractions around Beijing, Nanjing, Guiyang and Nanchang, and the display formats have extended from boxes to trays, stands and clothes hangers.

"We want to provide designers the best platform to show their works," Wang said. "We have cooperated with nearly 1,000 designers and have more than 40,000 original items sold in our stores."

Following Fengguo's lead, other box stores are spreading across the country. IBox, a chain established in 2008, now has 13 outlets in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin. There are also a lot of independent box stores selling items from original handicrafts to second-hand and discontinued items.

"The entry barrier for the industry is relatively low, because the business model is stable and has little risk," said Sun Sansan, planning director of IBox. "But it is challenging opening more stores, which adds to the labor costs and the need for greater designer resources."

Wang also said running box stores is not always a very profitable business. "Many imitators have swarmed into the market since 2008, but some closed down or collapsed last year due to poor management and a lack of core competitiveness," he said.


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