Friday, 2 October 2009

Compare and contrast: Hotel Chocolat

Why is Hotel Chocolat the subject of this month’s “Compare and contrast”, in which I look at the UK and US versions of a particular merchant? Well, I could say it’s because Halloween takes place in October, and you can’t have Halloween without sweets. I could also say it’s because Royston, Hertfordshire-based Hotel Chocolat launched its first US store, in Boston, last month, two years after entering the market via the web.

But I’d be lying. The real reason is that I figured, if I’m going to be staring at web pages, those pages might as well offer something lovely to look at—something like chocolates.

Neither Hotel Chocolat site disappoints in this regard. On the home page of the UK version (above) a good-size image of a chocolate skull and gravestones accompanies the headline “Boo!” and copy challenging you to “discover our hair-raising Halloween chocolates if you dare...” followed by a link to a page of Halloween sweets. The company makes sure to emphasise its unique branding proposition—that the chocs its sells aren’t your run-of-the-mill goodies but are instead top-of-the-line—with the headline “Luxury Chocolate Gifts” directly below the Halloween image and, to the right, a list of the site’s top five best-selling “luxury gifts for him & her...”.

Having determined, no doubt correctly, that Americans are less familiar with its brand, Hotel Chocolat uses the home page of its US site (above) primarily as a branding vehicle. Rotating images emphasising the decadence of its chocolates (a woman in evening attire feeding a blind-folded man sat at a grand piano a bonbon) and their premium quality (a close-up of a cocoa bean, simply propped shots of its chocolates against a dark background) take up most of the screen, selling Hotel Chocolat rather than the individual chocolates. Below the slide show are links to “our finest Champagne Truffles”, information about the company’s cocoa plantation, an introduction to the company (“A state of mind, a place, a feeling... Why Hotel Chocolat?”), and the email sign-up.

Another reason Hotel Chocolat plays up the gourmand extravagance of the brand in the US may have to do with its pricing. A box of 16 Champaign Truffles on the UK site costs £15 ($23.83); on the US site, $36 (£22.64). The Halloween Pick-Me-Up Gift Bag (which is seriously adorable, by the way) is £10 ($15.89) on the UK site—not cheap, but accessible enough that I may buy one for my daughter. On the US site it costs $25 (£15.73), which means if we were still living in the States, my daughter would definitely be making do with some Hershey kisses.

Then there’s the shipping. Next-day shipping is available on both sites, though only the UK version promotes it on the home page. Perhaps that’s because figuring out shipping costs on the US site is overall a bit of a trial. The UK site offers two tiers of shipping rates (for one item and for multiple items) for standard and “gold” (next-day) delivery within the country as well as flat rates for standard delivery to the rest of Europe and other parts of the world except the US. If you’re on the UK site and want to send an order to the States, you need to click the link to the US site.

Fair enough. But not only does the US site not offer any sort of flat rate, it doesn’t even show you the delivery cost until you’re about to pay for your order. And shipping isn’t cheap. It doesn’t help that Hotel Chocolat fulfils its Stateside orders from Massachusetts, far up north on the East Coast. Even so, delivery of a $16 (£10.06), 3.53-oz box of Caramel Canapes to New Rochelle, NY, just outside Manhattan and no more than 300 miles away from the fulfilment centre, would cost $7.53 (£4.74)—and that’s without the $7 (£.4.40) insulated packaging, which is “strongly” recommended if temperatures at the delivery destination are above 70F (21C). Shipping to Arizona, say, or southern California would be prohibitive. Those Caramel Canapes had better be damn good.

In comparison, another upscale chocolatier, Godiva, charges $6.95 (£4.37) for shipping of orders under $18 (£11.32), regardless of destination. And it does not charge extra for “climate-controlled packaging”.

Hotel Chocolat's UK and the US sites both underscore the brand's expertise in all things chocolate, with links on the home pages to glossaries and recipes. And both aim to simplify gift selection: The US site enables you to browse by occasion, product, and person; the UK version adds another option, attributes, to the list.

The browse function is not only more thorough but also sleeker on the UK site, however. When browsing by occasion, for example, a drop-down menu offers a list of 10 choices, including “dinner party” and “self-indulgence”. The menu on the US site is much clunkier and, oddly, more downmarket in appearance, and it offers just five choices. Apparently in the UK “autumn” is occasion enough to indulge in chocolates, but not in the US. Then again, given how much more costly the products are in the States, it's much tougher for Yanks to justify dropping that much dosh merely to celebrate the falling of the leaves.--SC

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