At the enormous Pacific Department Store on Shanghai’s Huaihai Road, barriers block the street entrances and windows are shuttered. The store, which was one of the largest on one of the city’s busiest shopping streets for nearly two decades, closed in January. The shell of the store now sits incongruously opposite the K11 mall, which has been thriving ever since implementing a smart re-think of the shopping mall concept a couple of years ago. The lesson of the different fates of these two shopping centers is clear—adapt or die. Retail is not declining in China, it’s just changing.
After incredible growth in recent years, e-commerce in China seems to be slowing down. One reason behind this is the high penetration rate. By 2016, 62% people in Tier 3 and 4 cities were shopping online, while the number in Tier 1 and 2 cities stood at 89%. On the other hand, consumers in China have also changed over time, now the middle class are shifting their money from cheap products to premium services and goods where experience and recognition ties take priority. So does it mean online retail will go gloomy and physical stores may return to the spotlight?
It is a good time to reflect on Singles Day, a shopping carnival initiated by Alibaba that has just yielded a record-breaking sales of $17.8 billion, exceeding that on “Black Friday” in the US. It looks like everyone benefits: vendors sell, buyers get cheap goods and Alibaba profits through advertising fees and transaction commissions. But consider: to sell more, vendors lower product prices and sacrifice per-unit margins, yet they might not be able to make up on volume, as most of the items purchased are durable goods and therefore most of the increased sales on Singles Day are probably shifting sales from earlier or later periods.
Each year Alibaba breaks a new record on Singles Day, the 24-hour online shopping extravaganza has now become a celebratory annual event. The rise of online ecommerce has transformed the way Chinese people shop. According to 2015 e-commerce stats, 46% of Chinese people buy groceries online, 30% people made impulse buys, and $ 333 billion purchase were conducted on mobile devices. The online shopping phenomenon, on one hand, is hurting retail, on the other is fostering a multi-billion dollar express delivery business. With 8,000 express companies national wide, China’s express delivery market was worth $ 42.1 billion in 2015.
China’s apparel market is now one of the fastest growing markets in the world. Euromonitor statistics show many foreign brands doing well: Uniqlo currently holds 1.6% of the market for specialist apparel; and Danish company Bestseller Fashion Group China, which operates brands like Only, Jack & Jones and Vero Moda, is holding 2.3% of the market share. Where are the local apparel brands? VANCL, a Chinese ecommerce clothes retailer, is almost a forgotten name. It used to have a 4.5% market share in 2011, but its dream of IPO lie in ashes—how did the once mighty retailer become China’s diaosi (loser) brand?
With humble beginnings in Hangzhou, Jack Ma went on to create an e-commerce titan that has grabbed the attention of China and the world. Today Jack Ma and Alibaba’s story has become the stuff that legends are made of. Duncan Clark has witnessed firsthand Jack Ma’s dizzying rise in China’s e-commerce firmament. A former investment banker at Morgan Stanley, Clark first got to know Jack Ma in 1999 when he met him in the small Hangzhou apartment where Ma and his friends famously founded Alibaba. In this interview, Clark, also the author of Alibaba, the House that Jack Ma Built, talks about Alibaba’s incredible story and its impact on China.
In China second hand is the latest in thing. Perceptions of greater acceptance for gently used goods is reflected in investors’ enthusiasm for the many start-ups that are now aiming to become the premier national platforms for used goods, ranging from cars to phones, to luxury items and even Han dynasty antiques. Diverse as these markets are, they are all reputation-based businesses where success requires mechanisms to guard against users trying to pass off bad goods as good-as-new. So what is fuelling the growth of second hand markets in China? And how are sellers dealing with the critical issue of creating and maintaining consumer trust?
Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce firm, recently smashed global records for its ‘Single’s Day’ promotion on 11th November 2015, selling $14.3 billion worth of merchandise in just 24 hours. This is the equivalent to 120,000 orders placed every minute, covering both online spaces such as Taobao and Tmall as well as 180,000 brick and mortar sites across 330 cities in China. The numbers are staggering, but they also show a problem with the sheer scale of selling—how to ensure the quality and authenticity, of goods. Alibaba is now tightening the screws on fake goods being sold on its platforms, but can it stay one step ahead of counterfeiters?
Luxury brands have never had it this bad in China. For most of them, China is no longer the cash cow it once was. Multiple reports suggest that the luxury retail business in China is shrinking. The top 10 global luxury brands as per Millward Brown’s latest BrandZ report—a list that includes names like Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci and Chanel—saw 6% of their total brand valuation evaporate in 2015, and China is partly to be blamed. Already the likes of Louis Vuitton, Armani, Prada and Chanel have started shuttering stores in China. But all is not lost and luxury can still make a comeback in China.
Tencent has used WeChat to create a mobile ecosystem for China, which has more smartphone than PC users. By steadily integrating value-added services into a social media app, Tencent has made it increasingly useful to both consumers and businesses. That means WeChat has more opportunities than other messaging apps to make money. In contrast to Facebook, which earns most of its revenue from advertising, WeChat monetizes by integrating online payment functions that encourage shopping through the app and selling games. In the second quarter, Tencent recorded RMB 4.5 billion in revenue from games purchased through WeChat and its older instant messaging app QQ, up 11% year-on-year.