Do Luxury Brands Need Their Own Cafés in China?

Food and drink, not fashion, is increasingly driving traffic into malls in China. With the soaring popularity of online shopping, developers have been forced to get creative in giving consumers reasons to visit brick and mortar spaces, and restaurants are always a huge draw.

In the last few years, the retail brands themselves, from Gucci to Ralph Lauren, have used a similar strategy to bring in foot traffic, and thus, the branded café trend was born. Luxury and lifestyle labels are enticing consumers with coffee, dessert, and a space to hang out. But in a market where trends are here one day and gone the next, can a brand really sustain a worthwhile experience simply by adding a coffee bar?

The success of Chanel’s Coco Café seems to suggest so. The brand set up a pop-up in Shanghai’s Aunn Café and ignited Chinese social media attention almost immediately. After waiting in line, for hours in some cases, visitors could nab a free coffee in exchange for trying three beauty products, including lipsticks, nail polish, and blush — hardly a hardship. Consumers were also encouraged to take pictures with a cute, pink Chanel logo to further fuel the hype online.

Long lines and the limited-time nature of the café likely added to its popularity, but many other brands have gone all in with a commitment to delivering treats alongside their regular product offerings. And it’s not just luxury brands either — some of the newest locally run multi-brand fashion and lifestyle shops, like Beijing’s Playlounge and Algorithm, and Shanghai’s Nininio, are incorporating cafés and restaurants in their spaces.

Yet, Chinese consumers are only becoming more discerning, and with more high quality coffee options available to them in big cities, adding a café doesn’t mean the space will see positive results. In New York, even Tiffany’s recently debuted The Blue Box Café has received mixed reviews from mainland Chinese visitors, with some reporting service has been slow or the value of the food wasn’t worth it. What Tiffany’s and places like it can count on, though, is that Chinese customers will want to take pictures for their WeChat moments, and many thriving café-retail concepts are keeping that in mind when designing their spaces and dishes.

Below are five examples of cafés in China that illustrate what it looks like when fashion and lifestyle brands attempt to reach consumers through their stomachs.

1. Moleskine Café

The Moleskine café in Beijing. Photo: Jessica Rapp

After debuting a cafe extension of its notebook brand in Milan in 2016, Moleskine recently expanded to a second location, this time in China’s capital. The logic, according to Moleskine CMO ​Roberto Lobetti, was that Beijing was the creative and cultural hub of China, and a store that already served as a host for events could be transformed into a more dynamic space for workshops, exhibitions, talks, and meet-ups.

So far, the stationery and coffee combo has resonated well with customers, transforming a boutique that saw reasonably steady foot traffic into one that’s always packed. The concept follows a lifestyle formula that’s been used by both local bookshops and even department stores — late last year, Beijing’s leading luxury department store SKP launched a lifestyle concept store, Rendezvous, that combined a bookstore with a café and wine bar.

It’s too soon to know how the strategy will affect sales at the Moleskine shop in Beijing, but the iconic notebook brand already has plans to open more cafes in other key retail locations around the globe.

2. Joseph 

Joseph Beijing and the attached Joe’s Café. Photo: Jessica Rapp

Joseph Ettedgui brought together a dining and fashion concept when he first created his luxury fashion brand in the 1970s. In 2015, it came to Beijing, but the boutique in Taikoo Li is a far cry from the more iconic restaurant in London, with only a small coffee bar for shoppers. In the summer months, however, the China version of Joe’s Cafe spills out onto a terrace, which serves to bring a bit of life to an area of the mall which would otherwise only be populated by the more serious high-end shopper.

3. Vivienne Westwood Café

Located on the upper floors of Shanghai art mall K11, the Vivienne Westwood Café opened in 2015, the same year Gucci opened its own restaurant in the city. These luxury brand dining launches came at a time when many luxury brands were closing stores in China and seeking new ways to draw in customers. For many of the commenters on Chinese restaurant review site Dianping, Vivienne Westwood appears to have gotten things right. What’s unique about the British heritage tea house is that it has only two locations in the world, and both are in Greater China.

4. Kiehl’s Coffee House

Kiehl’s store and café in Beijing. Photo: Jessica Rapp

Riding the coffee and cosmetics wave, Kiehl’s opened its first ever café in Taipei last summer, offering a menu of Instagram-friendly lattes and cakes whose flavors take cues from the natural ingredients in its skincare products. Kiehl’s Coffee House leaves ample room for seating and shopping among the New York brand’s iconic exposed brick, neon-lit space, and so far, reviews seem to be generally positive, generating plenty of social media photos of its decorated desserts and lattes.

Fast-forward several months and the L’Oreal-owned brand has tried to copy its success in Beijing’s Taikoo Li Mall, except this time the reviews on Chinese review site Dianping have been more mixed. The much smaller space is a stone’s throw away from Starbucks and the always buzzing HeyTea, which actually pays its customers to wait in line outside. One Dianping commenter even complained that the latte tasted a bit like toner, suggesting that despite the popularity of similar concepts like Coco Café and the Green Café by Korean cosmetics brand Innisfree in Shanghai, the coffee and skincare mix doesn’t always work.

5. Mercedes me

Mercedes me in Beijing. Photo: Mercedes

It’s not solely a café and retail concept but an entire accessible lifestyle experience associated with its luxury car brand that Mercedes delivers in Beijing’s hip Sanlitun district. The café itself faces the street and makes for a trendy spot to see and be seen, while further inside, there’s a showroom for ogling the latest car models. To further expand its reach, Mercedes me does crossover projects with local high-end restaurants, and frequently plays host to fashion and lifestyle events in its two-story space.


Food, Wine, & Spirits, Market Trends