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China – for instance, here in Beijing – has an up-and-coming market for wine, one which promises great potential but also many challenges.
Cheers addresses a young, modern circle of customers – be it on a face-to-face basis in its shops, or via social media (e.g. weibo.com/cheerswines).

Claudia Masüger CEO Cheers
Text: Claudia Wirz/Images: Cheers

“In China you need to be faster, more professional and more creative than the competition.”

With her expanding wholesale wine business and a chain of wine shops in Beijing, Claudia Masüger is in the process of changing China’s wine market.

“For the Chinese, it’s a great compliment to be copied. ”

Ms Masüger, in 2008 you came to China with just a case of samples. Today, you’re a wine wholesaler in Beijing, operate a chain of shops with already 16 outlets and more than 90 employees, and each month you import something like 70,000 bottles of moderately-priced wine and bubbly from all around the world. How did you manage to pull this off?

With clear focus, unyielding perseverance, hard work, an understanding of a different culture, lots of passion and thanks to an outstanding team of people!

Why of all places did you pick China?

It was more by coincidence than design. I was looking for adventure, and China struck me as being a huge and attractive market.

The wine market has been booming in China for a number of years now. Is there a kind of gold-rush fever in your field of business?

Yes, your gold-digger allusion hits the nail on the head. Many companies want to get a foothold in China. It’s an emerging market with enormous potential, but also many risks and tremendous challenges.

In China, the local dining culture doesn’t exactly fit with the European way of savouring wine. For example, people are not really inclined to linger at the table once the meal is finished. So is the current wine boom in China more than just a passing fad?

With our Cheers chain of wine shops, we’re addressing a young, modern and open-minded target group. The generational evolution in China is bringing about countless changes. Wine consumption is still in its infancy but is increasing at a torrid pace. Young Chinese adore this new trend and are adopting it into their lifestyle. 

“I don’t believe that Chinese wine will become a major topic in Europe.”

Which types of wine do the Chinese like?

The young crowd is very open to the new. In our shops, they can try all sorts of wine. We offer many degustation parties where we can introduce the Chinese to the complex world of wine in an amusing and understandable way. It’s important that each of them acquires their own special taste. We also demonstrate to them how wine and dining can be combined, and at which occasions and events we in Europe consume still wines or sparkling wines. It’s great fun to acquaint a fascinated target group with our wine know-how and products.

What role do social media play in your business?

We work very intensively with the Chinese versions of social media. Weibo, Weixin and Youku are important tools there for getting the attention of young people. We set great store in the power of video-marketing. In all of our shops, we show our weekly homemade videos which give customers insight into our company culture, even as they impart specialised know-how in a modern and amusing way. Our motto is “Cheers makes you smile”.

How has the Chinese palate for wine evolved since 2008?

Chinese people’s taste for wine is only beginning to develop. In the past, they mainly bought and drank wine for prestige purposes – usually with business considerations in the back of their mind. The focus was of course on French wines. Our Beijing chain of shops has changed the wine market because our moderate prices and uncomplicated style makes it possible also for young people to get to know wine. Our customers drink wine for private purposes, because they have fun doing it. And as is the case all over the world, they start out with the sweeter, fruitier varieties.

You once mentioned that Swiss wines don’t sell very well in China. Do the Chinese have something against us?

Much to the contrary: Switzerland is very popular in China! But Swiss wines are relatively expensive and not very well known.

Will the free trade agreement between Switzerland and China change anything in that regard?

The free trade agreement will be advantageous for us only in about ten years’ time, given that the tariffs will be lowered in gradual steps. At present, Swiss wines account for a mere fraction of our sales. For that reason, the FTA is not yet of importance to our company. 

“The free trade agreement will be advantageous for us only in about ten years’ time.”

China itself is one of the world’s largest wine producers. Do imported medium-range wines even have a chance there in the longer run?

Chinese vintners are fast learners but what’s mainly lacking here is the passion. Until now, there have been only a handful of really fine wines from China. Most of them are blended with European wines so the flavour can be improved. Also China hasn’t yet introduced any specific wine legislation. Sales of imported wine are increasing with each year that passes, and there is still a lot of upside potential. One of the reasons why Chinese prefer a domestic wine is the low price. With our pricing strategy at Cheers, we’ve changed that. We offer good-quality imported wines already at the equivalent of 4.30 CHF.

On the flipside, how great do you think the demand for Chinese wine might be in the European market?

I don’t believe that Chinese wine will become a major topic in Europe. But of course it’s certainly of interest to give it a try once.

For your wine business, you brought a Chinese partner on board at a very early stage. How important was this move in terms of your success?

For the B2B dealings with MQ Wines, having a Chinese partner was a crucial step. In China, negotiating requires a unique skillset. Also, a Chinese individual brings important relationships to the table. However, for our retail shops, this partnership is of little relevance: Cheers is mainly run by foreigners. The important thing is to have good lawyers in your camp.

That of course has to do with the Chinese business practices that at times can drive Western business people up the wall. Cheating, adulterating, faking and copying are part of the daily business docket. How do you cope with such challenges?

We have a lot of experience in that. Not only have our wine labels, business cards, websites and logos been copied, but also our entire business approach. Our wine shop concept has already been “borrowed” a number of times, including the employee uniforms, pricing strategy, shop layout, VIP forms, marketing initiatives, etc. The Chinese staff were pleased: for them it’s a great compliment to be copied. But for us foreigners, the very thought is disconcerting indeed. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to have competent lawyers on board. In China, you need to be faster, more professional and more creative than the competition. We attach great value to the product range and customer service at Cheers. But the most important factors are the employees themselves and their focus on our core values. It’s precisely this in-house culture that can’t be copied, and it’s what has made us so successful.

To foster the match-deciding relationships, in other words “Guanxi”, hectolitres of wine flow in China. Isn’t that a bit trying after a while?

In the early phase of building up our B2B business, the “obligatory imbibing” was in fact rather distressing and required getting used to – but it was a key to success. In our shops, we talk directly with the end consumer and drink wine only when it’s fun to do so. 

“In China, the important thing is to have good lawyers in your camp.”

Do you also take an occasional sip at home?

I like to drink our products together with friends, employees or our customers – very civilised and with great gusto!

Where will the Chinese wine market be in ten years’ time? And where will you stand?

The Chinese wine market will grow in leaps and bounds. Our goal is to open a total of 888 Cheers shops in China. In the summer of 2014, we’ll start with the franchising.

Claudia Masüger

Claudia Masüger was born in 1971 to a traditional wine purveyor family which has been in that business for four generations. When Claudia Masüger first came to Beijing, she immediately recognised that a potential market for reasonably priced wine also existed in China. She has been General Manager of wine purveyor MQ Wines since 2008, and right from the start was quick to bring a Chinese partner on board. In order not to be reliant on Chinese distributors who charge exorbitant prices also for plonk, Masüger founded the Cheers chain of wine shops, which she now oversees as CEO. The chain is expanding rapidly and addresses a young, price-conscious clientele.

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