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 behavior.
“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.
“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.
Bottomline: Make sure you have a well established working site, with room for lots of feedback before you enter the Chinese market. If you even can!