Global Briefing | Cracking E-Commerce in China

Xiu.com screenshot | Source: Xiu.com

We continue this week’s focus on e-commerce by turning our attention on how to succeed in the rapidly expanding e-commerce market in China. 

BEIJING, China — According to a recent report by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), China is set to become the world’s next e-commerce superpower, surpassing the United States to become the largest online commerce market in the world, with an estimated market size of $300 billion. In 2006, less than 10 percent of China’s urban population shopped online. By 2015, that figure is expected to have quadrupled, reaching 44 percent, while the total number of e-commerce shoppers in China will grow to 329 million.

What’s more, according to BCG, China’s massive geography, a middle class that is rapidly expanding beyond the country’s largest cities, and widely accessible, heavily subsidised high-speed internet — broadband in China costs just $10 per month, compared with $30 per month in India — make the country unusually fertile ground for e-commerce, with internet access far outpacing the reach of physical retailers. Indeed, up to a quarter of e-commerce demand in China is for products consumers cannot find in physical stores, with apparel and skincare amongst the fastest-growing online categories.

But for fashion companies aiming to crack the online retail opportunity in China, it’s imperative to understand that the country’s e-commerce market is very different to established markets in the United States and Europe and that online shoppers in China — much younger, on average, than their Western counterparts — have different expectations, preferences and patterns of behaviour.

“Chinese consumers’ recognition and preference for fashion brands is quite different from mature markets,” said George Wenhong Ji, founder and CEO of Shenzhen-based fashion e-tailer Xiu.com, which sells international luxury brands like Gucci and Chanel, and last year raised $100 million in a second round of funding from elite venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and private equity firm Warburg Pincus.

“Fashion brands that are not so popular could be received very well in China and vice versa. [Chinese consumers] are still price-sensitive and have poor loyalty towards brands,” said Ji. “It’s important to study Chinese consumers’ income and expenditure – how much money they earn in different cities of China and how much they would spend on fashion; how much they would spend on fashion online,” he continued.

According to the BCG report, 7 percent of online shoppers are responsible for 40 percent of online spending. For fashion retailers, the importance of these “superheavy spenders,” each of whom complete over 50 transactions a year and have a preference for heavily branded goods, cannot be underscored enough.

To entice superheavy spenders, first and foremost, it’s vital for online retailers to get the product mix right, Morgan Tan, vice-president of e-business at Lane Crawford, told BoF. These high-spending consumers are looking for must-have seasonal items that aren’t available elsewhere, she said, noting a growing demand for niche labels. Indeed, Xiu.com, which last year recorded sales of approximately $150 million, plans to carry more international and Chinese labels that competitors do not offer, while The Corner, a luxury e-tailer owned by the Yoox Group, which operates a China-specific site at thecorner.com.cn, recently launched The Vogue Talents Corner, an initiative promoting less known emerging designers in collaboration with Vogue China.

Compared to their counterparts in the West, affluent consumers in China have a lower baseline knowledge of fashion products and are ravenous for information, an opportunity for retailers to engage them more frequently with content and advice. “It is about engaging her daily,” said Jeff Yurcisin, president of Shopbop.com, which recently launched a site in Chinese. “We send out daily emails to our customers, so she gets her fashion fix every day,” he continued. “The opportunity is for us to be a personal stylist, to spend more time telling stories and introduce her to brands that the American customer already knows.”

But despite their hunger for information, Chinese consumers are distrustful of online retailers. Amongst the world’s most highly social shoppers, Chinese shoppers trust information and recommendations from their peers on blogs, social networks and user review sites far more than official brand communications. In fact, according to BCG, only 19 percent of Chinese consumers even visit official brand sites, as compared to between 41 and 60 percent in Japan, the US and Europe.

“Online shoppers in China are much more wary than the US and UK,” said Fabienne Pellegrin, Asia business development director for Salvatore Ferragamo, who also oversees the brand’s digital development. “They need more information than the average online shopper. There’s so much abuse online, so they are programmed not to trust anything,” she continued, emphasising the importance of peer recommendations and user reviews. In fact, over 40 percent of Chinese shoppers surveyed by BCG had both read and posted online product reviews, nearly double the rate in the US. “Encourage [consumers] to write reviews about your product because so many people read them,” advised Ms. Pellegrin.

As in the West, a high level of customer service is another essential part of a successful China e-commerce strategy. “[Chinese consumers] will become loyal to an e-commerce company because of high quality service,” said Mr. Ji. “It’s about making the online shopping experience as convenient and risk-free as possible with reliable deliveries and free returns,” said Ms. Tan. “Unlike many other online retailers, we offer a multi-channel approach for customers that allows them to collect or return their order to our stores,” she continued.

While shipping costs are low, China has a poor delivery network dominated by local, independent couriers that are neither efficient nor reliable, a major hurdle for online retailers. To address the issue, The Corner has partnered with international shipping service Fedex to provide couriers who wait at customers’ doorsteps while they try on their purchases and facilitate on-the-spot returns. The Corner also leverages sophisticated RFID technology to seal packages with anti-counterfeit microchips (according to the BCG study, 45 percent of shoppers worry that their goods will be swapped for fakes while in transit).

Alongside delivery-related services that lower risk and make shopping more convenient, affluent Chinese consumers also expect rewards for their loyalty. As a result, VIP reward programmes or other special incentives are critical to success. For example, VIP shoppers on Xiu.com can view fashion shows and pre-order next season’s products months in advance of others. “We find that for more high-end customers, they value additional services, such as VIP sales alerts, pre-order, seasonal gifts,” said Mr. Ji.

But for international retailers targeting China’s fashion e-commerce market, consistently delivering a high quality experience that’s localised to the needs, behaviours and expectations of Chinese consumers often means investing in China-based operations. Indeed, while Net-a-Porter has long shipped to China, the company recently announced that it would open a distribution centre in Hong Kong this summer to better serve the Asia-Pacific region.

“Throughout 2010, we set up local operations — an office and logistics centre — in Shanghai to run the business locally,” said Federico Marchetti, founder and CEO of Yoox Group. “A local structure and local team ensures we provide Chinese customers with a unique online shopping experience characterised by completely localised, best-in-class customer service,” he added. “Although e-commerce enables brands to have an international distribution, the online shopping experience still works better at a local level.”

Ultimately, a successful China e-commerce strategy is composed of the same fundamental elements that matter in the West: engaging content, great customer service, dependable deliveries and easy returns are all critical. But in China, these elements count in different ways and weights, with editorial-style content, peer-to-peer persuasion, risk-free deliveries and rewards programmes carrying particular importance.

Divia Harilela is an associate contributor at The Business of Fashion.