How to Make Sense of China’s E-commerce Growth

Eric Pong
How to Make Sense of China's E-commerce Growth-Floship

How to Make Sense of China’s E-commerce Growth

China, with its staggering population of over 1.4 billion, has more internet users than any other country in the world. More internet users translates into more e-commerce shoppers, making China the largest and fastest-growing e-commerce market in the world.

ecommerce shoppers
With $630 billion in sales in 2015, China’s e-commerce market dwarfs all others, being almost 80% larger than the United States.
In fact, e-commerce accounts for 13.5% of total Chinese retail spending, which is the highest percentage of any large economy except for the United Kingdom. Clearly China is experiencing a massive boom in online shopping an e-commerce.
As reports:

The volume of online sales in China now exceeds that in the US, and online sales are expected to grow 20% annually by 2020. Furthermore, online shoppers represent the vanguard of China’s growth story, since they tend to be young, urban, and highly educated. They have a different attitude toward shopping than older generations, which were shaped as savers by more challenging political and economic circumstances. Younger shoppers are more willing to spend.
But what specific factors are driving this growth? In this article we examine the factors behind this growth, as well as the various retailer responses to this growth.

Many Offerings On Many Devices

The majority of China’s internet users are accessing the internet through mobile devices, as has been the case for many years.

In fact, over 60% of online shoppers use 2 to 3 apps to shop, with some using as many as 5. This, of course, means that a significant portion of e-commerce is occurring on mobile devices.

However, multi device internet users do significantly more shopping online than those who only have a mobile phone, and thus represent a significant source of revenue for retailers.

China’s ecommerce players

As McKinsey & Company reports:

They [multi device users] spend 17 percent more on e-commerce than their mobile-only peers. They also shop online in 29 percent more categories and interact 14 percent more with businesses through social networks, using such interfaces as brands’ public WeChat accounts.

device adoption among digital consumers

This means that while mobile e-commerce strategies are crucial, standard desktop advertising should not be neglected either.
Intelligent retailers will tap into these multi device users for additional revenue and those companies which have an intelligent mix of mobile and desktop are likely to achieve a higher market share than those who only focus on mobile devices.

Increased Adoption In Low-Tier Cities

In 2015, the online spending of low-tier cities (those cities with smaller populations) caught up to the spending of high-tier cities for the first time. Additionally, low-tier cities now have 74 million more online shoppers than high-tier cities.

The growth potential in low-tier cities also is significantly higher than high-tier cities. In low-tier cities, there are still approximately 160 million internet users who have yet to begin online shopping, presenting a massive untapped market for retailers.

This market potential in low-tier cities has not gone unnoticed by brands. Again, to quote

To keep up with increasing demand from smaller urban and rural areas, online retailers are seeking to expand logistics infrastructure and services. For example, Alibaba’s logistics arm, Cainiao, now owns 180,000 express delivery stations for the shipment of products and has recently expanded its fresh food distribution centers across China. The firm recently completed its first external funding round and is expected to spend $16 billion over the next five to eight years to expand its network.

The potential in low-tier markets is at least partially due to high-tier cities reaching an e-commerce saturation point. Almost everyone 13 or older (89%) in high-tier cities already shops online, which means that the only way to increase e-commerce is increase the purchase frequency of shoppers.
In addition to low-tier cities, there is also massive potential for e-commerce in rural areas:
There are over 180 million internet users living outside Chinese cities and a full 60% of them have never purchased anything online. In response, the biggest Chinese online retailers, such as Alibaba, are scrambling to create infrastructure to encourage and support e-commerce in these areas.

Social Media Boom

Social Media is playing an increasing role in e-commerce in China, with platforms like WeChat driving more online purchases. Not only are these platforms being used to discuss and research products, they are also driving direct purchases.

social media boom in China's ecommerce landscape
As McKinsey & Company exposed:

Of the WeChat users we surveyed, 31 percent initiated purchases on the platform—double the proportion of the previous year.

weChat users and ecommerce
As brands and retailers use increasingly specific targeted ads on social media platform, these numbers will likely rise.

Increase In Cross-Border Shopping

Chinese consumers are now supplementing their domestic purchases through cross-border e-commerce purchases. This is especially the case in cross-border items that are either too expensive or difficult to obtain within China itself.
Many consumers in high-tier cities use e-commerce to purchase premium healthcare products, such as supplements, while those in low-tier cities use e-commerce to purchase luxury goods. Middle and upper-class consumers are often eager to obtain clothing and gadgets not yet available in China and resort to e-commerce to obtain them.

Additionally there are certain products, such as milk powder, diapers, and pet food, which Chinese consumers view as more reliable, and thus prefer to purchase from foreign suppliers.

Several specific government actions have also increased cross-border e-commerce in China:
First, a number of e-commerce zones were set up in specific cities where foreign companies can store goods, which allows them to ship them much more quickly. Because these goods have already passed through customs, shipping time is cut dramatically, allowing consumers to receive their purchases more quickly than normal.
Second, China doesn’t collect sales tax in cross-border e-commerce and the duty tax on a number of items has been dramatically slashed. This has the obvious effect of significantly increasing the appeal of cross-border e-commerce.
Online retailers are taking advantage of these new government regulations.
Internet Retailer reported:

Alibaba launched Tmall Global in February 2014 to allow foreign companies without a China business license to sell online to Chinese consumers under the new e-commerce regulations. Sales on Tmall Global increased 179% in the fourth quarter of 2015 from a year earlier, Alibaba reported in its quarterly earnings report.

iConsumer ecommerce China 2016 survey

Adoption Of Products

Chinese consumers have adopted certain products more quickly than others. Apparel leads the way, with 60% of consumers purchasing at least one piece of clothing in the past six months. Consumer electronics and appliances are also popular, each reaching 30% of total retail sales.
Surprisingly, food, which can be difficult for online businesses to sell, has reached a high level of adoption. Approximately 50% of consumers have purchased food items online. However, these food purchases are typically a small portion of total consumer spending, meaning consumers aren’t making purchases they would normally make at supermarkets. There is certainly much possibility for growth in the online food market.


Despite China’s rapid e-commerce expansion, there is still significant room for growth, which will continue to draw in new competitors.
Existing players will continue to build infrastructure to allow them to more effectively reach low-tier cities and rural areas, and social media will play an even bigger role in driving e-commerce purchases.
Those retailers who are able to adapt to rapid and continuous changes will achieve the greatest success, while those who refuse to change will likely fall behind.

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