High property prices fuel demand for Smart Bees' bespoke smart tech-equipped furniture that maximizes living spaces for families and young homeowners
On a trip to Italy in 2014, Wang Bin spotted furniture items specially designed for small homes. The furniture expert immediately wanted to export such Italian products to China where real estate prices in metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen are sky-high and living spaces are small. When his franchise business proposal was rejected by the Italian supplier, Wang decided to create his own brand in China.
Established in 2015 and re-branded as Smart Bees in December 2016, the Shanghai company is tapping growing demand for bespoke furniture that maximizes the use of indoor spaces in small homes. Unable to move to bigger premises because of high real estate prices, homeowners are turning to renovating their existing properties to accommodate growing families. China now allows couples to have two children, after ending its one-child policy in October 2015.
“Bespoke furniture is quite popular nowadays. There are big names in each market segment, such as Sophia for wardrobes and Oppein for kitchen cabinets. For Smart Bees, we only focus on creating customized furniture solutions for small homes,” said Wang, who is also CEO of the company.
Designer furniture for small homes
Traditional home renovation companies offer few products designed for small homes. They neglect this residential market segment because small homes produce limited profit. They cannot sell as much furniture as for the bigger homes in the market. To fill this gap, the company is now creating a niche market that excludes big homes. The company has turned down many requests from large villa owners who wanted the furniture design services.
Wang is optimistic about the small homes business model. “There are many families who need indoor space renovations. We cater to small homes less than 100 sqm.
"We also try to make our products as cost effective as possible. Whether it's middle-class or young consumers, they want to buy our furniture because of the added design value.”
Adds smart technology
Smart Bees has its own product development team. So far, it has acquired over 80 product patents. Four bed models have been released with different features, such as the side slip function and the ability to lift a person up and down. The design features also enable a bedroom to be transformed into a living room, cloakroom or study room during the day.
The company is different from traditional furniture brands because Smart Bees uses specially designed metal parts instead of traditional wooden plates and hinges. The R&D team also includes electrical and mechanical engineers from Shanghai Baosteel Group Corporation, a leading steel maker in China. Many automated functions are embedded into the furniture design. Since 2017, the team has been adding smart technology to the products like voice control.
The company's R&D strategy is different from its market competitors. “Shangpin Home Collection [a big bespoke furniture and home renovation solution provider in China] is very competitive on storage space. It focuses on full house customization to enable its furniture products to occupy less space. But Shangpin relies on the external supply chains," said Wang.
Smart Bees focuses on design, product development and brand services. The company uses electro-mechanical designs and special metal parts to create more space structures. "Shangpin has a stronger traditional color. We prefer smart creations for the future,” he added.
B2B expansion opportunities
During the early days in April 2015, an online visitor enquired about Smart Room products when Wang set up an e-store at Taobao.com, the e-commerce platform of Alibaba. The visitor turned out to be a project manager at Vanke, one of China's biggest residential real estate developer.
Vanke was building 2,000 small homes, with an area of only 20 sqm per unit. It had only sold one third of the development. The project manager invited Wang and his team to create a furniture solution for the small homes. Within a month, the team had produced two solutions to create smart homes with a living room, bedroom, study room, kitchen and bathroom. The 2,000 homes were sold out two months later.
The early success inspired Wang to start a B2B business line, covering both real estate developers and build-to-rent clients. Today, these clients account for 70% of Smart Bees' total sales.
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