The comb has a special place in Chinese culture. Beyond untangling hair, they are sometimes offered as a token of love. They are popular gifts on Qixi, a local variant on Valentine’s Day. And in some parts of China a bride and groom will have their hair combed the night before their wedding by someone deemed to possess good fortune.
Comb maker Carpenter Tan is one of the bigger industry players. Listed in Hong Kong and with 1,216 stores across China, the Chongqing-based company made Rmb312.3 million ($46.7 million) in revenue last year.
It is now expanding its retail presence internationally. Eight months after setting up its an overseas outlet in Singapore’s Suntec City Mall, Carpenter Tan unveiled another new flagship store in Toronto’s Scarborough Town Centre, one of Canada’s biggest shopping complexes, last month.
The plan is to open 12 stores outside mainland China this year.
The push into international markets had been promised for a while. Back in 2009, when Carpenter Tan went public in Hong Kong, the company earmarked the fundraising as a means to grow beyond its home market.
Since then it has opened and closed a few self-operated stores in Hong Kong, and tried to develop a sales network in parts of Asia, Europe and the US.
The results so far, by the company’s own admission, were “embarrassing” it noted (with uncharacteristic corporate candour).
“Although support and investment was made available in a progressive manner and manpower engagement was enhanced during the Year Under Review, the effect was insignificant as a result of the relatively weak foundation and the shallow insight into the market,” the company acknowledged in its annual report, noting that both its Hong Kong and Taiwan operations were lossmaking.
Slowing growth at home has served as a reason to try again and Carpenter Tan’s intention is to accelerate its overseas plans, according to Sina.com. The company experienced drops in both revenue and net profit in 2015 and 2016. Last year its profit dipped another 4.7% on the year to Rmb114.5 million.
The comb maker was founded in 1997 by Tan Chuanhua, a Chongqing native. He lost his right hand in an accident when he was 18 but persevered to master drawing and writing with the other. An unsuccessful stint as a schoolteacher spurred him in a more entrepreneurial direction, initially in woodcarving, a skill he says that was inherited from his ancestors. It was during a stroll through a mall in Shenzhen that Tan suddenly realised the market potential for well-crafted combs.
Of the many combs that Carpenter Tan has developed, the most iconic is made of ox horn, a material that is claimed to have recuperative powers. Positioning itself as a premium brand, Carpenter Tan sells higher-end combs like these at a starting price of about Rmb100 each unit but charges more for its gift sets. By the end of last year the company claimed to have 135 patents underpinning its product line too.
Winning business overseas could still be a struggle. Chinese communities may share a broader cultural interest in combs, but for other ethnicities there are fewer occasions to give them as a gift.
Carpenter Tan will also need designs that work better with non-Chinese hair types. “This definitely isn’t for African hair. This is for bone-straight hair!” commented a (presumably African) buyer on an Amazon page selling the company’s products.
One aspect of the firm’s story that might appeal to more affluent international consumers: according to People’s Daily 40% of the 900 staff at Carpenter Tan have some kind of disability, with the founder’s own experience making him keener to offer employment to people with a physical handicap.
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