2012 / 11月
Liu Yingfeng /photos courtesy of Chin Hung-hao /tr. by Scott Williams
There was a time when Taiwanese parents used to harp on the importance of advancing through the educational system and warn young people that “hobbies don’t put rice on the table.” Jigsaw puzzle maven Huang Li-chuan chose to ignore such admonitions and throw herself into the puzzle business. After more than 20 years in the business, the success of her Renoir Company, which has nearly 40 shops in Taiwan and mainland China, provides a striking counterexample to the old conventional wisdom. Her experience strongly suggests that pursuing your own interests is the best way to create a long-lived business.
For most people, jigsaw puzzles bring to mind childhood: images of cartoon and comic book characters, and prints of unknown landscapes.
But shoppers entering a Renoir shop encounter jigsaw puzzles with images by the likes of Taiwan’s own Jimmy or Anton Mucha, puzzles of such vibrant color and fine detail that they rewrite shoppers’ definitions of a “jigsaw puzzle.”The art of jigsaws
Huang Li-chuan, the founder and president of Renoir Co., is actually a graduate of the Fisheries Science Department of National Taiwan Ocean University who didn’t encounter jigsaw puzzles until already an adult. Speaking on how she came to be in the business, she laughs, “It was completely by chance.”
A friend first introduced her to jigsaw puzzles 20-some years ago with a puzzle that recreated the French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Le Moulin de la Galette.
She thought the puzzle and painting had made little impression on her, but they came back to her when she recognized a reproduction on the wall of a coffee shop. She realized then that the act of assembling the puzzle had imprinted every brushstroke and figure of Renoir’s original in her mind.
“I learned that you can remember artworks from being exposed to them as jigsaw puzzles,” she says. She began immersing herself in jigsaws, which became a way to share leisure time with family and friends.
Pregnant and considering a career change in 1990, she recalled the pleasure she’d gotten from jigsaws. She quit her job with a foreign firm and opened a little puzzle shop called “Renoir” in the bustling commercial district next to National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU).Perfect timing
At the time, she thought jigsaw puzzles were nothing more than an obscure niche market, but the opening of Renoir happened to coincide with a wave of enthusiasm for the pastime. The three similar shops near hers and the puzzles carried by bookstores and street vendors soon made it clear that the market wasn’t as small as she’d imagined. Renoir not only survived its early losses, it prospered, booking profits in its first year in business.
US investor Warren Buffet famously said of the 2008 financial crisis: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Much the same could be said of Taiwan’s jigsaw puzzle market of 20 years ago, when puzzle shops were popping up everywhere.
Such fads tend to come and go very quickly, and this one was no different. Within two years, the market had gone cold. Renoir saw its clientele shrink just at the moment when it was contending with cutthroat pricing from its competitors. Huang considered closing, but when she recalled why she’d opened the shop in the first place, she decided to gut it out.
Huang’s own love of puzzles gives her a better grasp of how to help her customers. The moment you enter one of her shops, a smiling clerk shows you around the inventory on the shelves and walks you through the mysteries of jigsaws. The shops even keep a disassembled puzzle on the counter to provide customers with a little bit of hands-on training.Personalized service
When customers come in, Renoir uses this puzzle to evaluate their level of skill and offer personalized recommendations. If a customer looks at two similar puzzle pieces and doesn’t know what to do, a clerk steps in to offer strategic advice. All too familiar with the inconvenience of having pieces fall on the floor while working on a puzzle, Huang has even designed a product that keeps pieces on the table and had it custom built. Working together, customer and clerk slowly assemble the puzzle.
Renoir also provides extensive post-sale service. Once a customer completes a puzzle, Renoir offers advice on framing, covering everything from frame sizes to patterns and colors. Such touches make Renoir’s interactions with its customers very different from those of most shops, for whom the relationship ends with the sale.Burnishing the brand online
Huang toiled quietly at Renoir’s original location near NTNU for 10 years before propelling the business into a new era by expanding it online sometime around the year 2000.
The power of the Internet quickly spread Renoir’s excellent reputation, further burnishing its brand. In 2002, the little shop that Huang had opened to pursue her own interests transformed into a full-fledged “interest-driven enterprise.” In that year, Renoir took its first steps to becoming a chain, opening an outlet in the Dunhua South Road Eslite bookstore and expanding its product line.
Taiwan’s jigsaw puzzle market originally consisted largely of small puzzles targeted at children. Adult interest began to grow when retailers started importing larger, more finely printed puzzles from Germany and Japan in the 1980s. When adult interest peaked in the 1990s, most of the puzzles being sold were still made in Japan.
Then a customer brought Renoir a completed puzzle for framing. The puzzle’s style and imagery were so different from those available on the Taiwan market that Huang got curious about its origin. When she asked about it, she learned that the customer had bought the puzzle in Europe.Product differentiation
Seeking to distinguish herself from the broader market, Huang negotiated agency arrangements with the European brands Educa, Heye and Jumbo, and increased the percentage of European puzzles in her catalogue. As she opened more shops, she gradually reduced the number of Japanese puzzles they carried, eventually turning Renoir into a retailer of exclusively European puzzles. Making such a switch in a Taiwanese market saturated with Japanese puzzles turned out to be more difficult than she’d anticipated.
European puzzles tend to be more finely detailed than the comics, cartoons, and illustrations featured on Japanese puzzles. Taiwanese customers needed a bit of introduction and explanation to appreciate the creativity and cleverness of the former. As a result, Renoir had to work harder to make sales when it moved into European puzzles and ended up developing its own style of retailing.
In 2005, after three years as an agent for European puzzle makers, Huang set her sights on going local and began negotiating for licenses on the works of Taiwanese artists and illustrators. As before, the impetus for the change was a Renoir customer.
Renoir’s original location in the NTNU commercial district attracted many foreign customers wondering whether the shop carried any jigsaw puzzles with a “Taiwanese” flavor, the kind they could give to friends and family back home. Huang soon realized that here was another market niche waiting to be filled.
So she once again transformed Renoir, extending its business into licensing and producing puzzles. Renoir acquired rights to works by the well known illustrator Jimmy, as well as others by painter Max Liu, comic-book artist Wan Wan, and even the painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival from the National Palace Museum’s collection.
Nowadays, Renoir shops carry puzzles made with licensed images in addition to those made by the three major European brands. The Taiwanese puzzles range in size from 24 pieces up to a wall-sized 24,000 pieces at prices from a few hundred NT dollars up to NT$2,000 or NT$3,000.
Renoir’s determined pursuit of licenses and the cost of renewing them every three to five years have made them the company’s heftiest expense.
Ivy Lee, Renoir’s deputy manager of marketing and planning, says that even though the market is full of unlicensed puzzles, Renoir sees licensing both as a means of showing respect to artists and the only way to prosper over the long term.
In business for more than 20 years, Huang grasps just how vibrant niche markets are and has gradually extended her company’s reach, expanding from northern Taiwan into the middle and southern parts of the island. She currently has 25 outlets around Taiwan, including two shops in Taipei, one in Taichung, and counters in larger retail establishments such as Eslite Books.Moving into mainland China
Renoir “pieced” the mainland Chinese market into its business plans in 2007, earlier than most other Taiwanese service-oriented and creative-cultural enterprises. And the company went big from the outset, opening its first mainland shop in the bustling Super Brand Mall in Shanghai’s Pudong area.
Huang says that a suggestion from a friend who lives in Shanghai prompted her to give it a shot. She originally planned only to test the waters, but she soon discovered that mainland consumers were far more familiar with jigsaw puzzles than she had realized. They also responded to Renoir far more enthusiastically than she had expected.
When she opened her first store in Taiwan, jigsaw puzzles were still relatively new here and customers would often ask what exactly her shop sold. She found a very different situation in the mainland, where she immediately had customers spending big money on difficult 5,000-piece puzzles.
In the five years since Renoir set up shop in Pudong, it has established several other Shanghai branches, and even opened a store in Beijing’s upscale Wangfujing commercial district. In fact, the company now has 12 outlets in Shanghai and Beijing.
Even with its expansion into mainland China, Renoir has kept its R&D and design work in Taiwan. And while many other firms are busily establishing facilities in the mainland to take advantage of its low costs, Renoir plans to stay firmly rooted here in Taiwan.
Huang is capable of seeing the beauty of the whole in a partially assembled picture, and has, through Renoir, redefined what it means to be a successful business. Her achievement in growing a single small shop into a retail empire that licenses content, acts as a local agent, and has integrated its entire upstream and downstream production chain provides other Taiwanese creative and cultural ventures with a blueprint to success.