Alibaba has been called the gateway to China – its Tmall Global platform is China’s largest international e-commerce platform, with more than 29,000 brands from 84 countries selling to almost 900m consumers. Brands that sell direct to Chinese customers include Royal Canin, VW and North Face.
Mim Figueiredo, cross-border e-commerce business development Europe at Tmall Global, offers her insights for British SME brands looking to make inroads into China’s burgeoning consumer market.
#1- Think digital first
Brands must think of technology as a tool to engage and develop relationships with the Chinese consumers – it is a must for businesses that want to expand their operations globally, and China is no exception.
By the end of 2020, China had 989m internet users; 782m of these consumers were shopping online, predominantly on mobile phones, according to government agency China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). But this mobile-first, consumer-centred market is seeing digitisation across the entire retail landscape – Chinese consumers now expect a highly customised shopping experience with seamless interaction between on- and off-line shopping experiences. For example, IKEA’s flagship store on Tmall offers a virtual 3D furniture-filled showroom of 3,800 products, enabling consumers to experience its signature maze-like walkthrough online.
#2 – Understand consumer behaviour
While an increasing number of social platforms in China have introduced their own e-commerce offerings, Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall remain the number one destination for online shopping in China. To capitalise on the China opportunity, it’s crucial for international brands to develop an understanding of how consumers shop through these channels. Aligning product releases and marketing campaigns with major Chinese holidays and shopping festivals – including but not limited to Women’s Day in March; the 618 mid-year promotion in June; May 20 (Chinese Valentine’s Day); the Qixi Festival in August (another Chinese Valentine’s Day) and Alibaba’s own 11.11 global shopping festival in November – will help brands gain consumers’ attention.
Meanwhile, fan culture is widespread, and not only among China’s youth. Fans will watch every film and stream every song featuring their idol, and purchase many – sometimes all – of the products they endorse. Collaborating with key opinion leaders or influencers can therefore be a great way to reach a specific audience and build brand awareness among target consumer groups.
#3 – Embrace livestreaming
Livestreaming is the go-to option for consumers when seeking out new products and deciding on what to buy. The livestream shopping market in China is expected to reach RMB2tr, or more than $300bn this year. It is the primary medium for key opinion leaders (influencers) to engage with their followers in China. Fans can ask questions about the products, post comments to the hosts and even send virtual gifts as a token of appreciation while watching the livestream. Welsh beauty tech brand SmoothSkin staged a livestream at last year’s Alibaba’s 11.11 shopping festival that had 103m views, helping SmoothSkin rank as one of the top 10 UK brands at the 2020 festival.
#4 – Stay on top of consumer trends
For any brand considering entering the market, it is important to keep up to speed with new and emerging trends. While life in China may largely be back to normal for many, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a lasting impact on many consumers’ outlook on life and daily routines. The growing trend of “lying flat” – primarily among Gen Zs but also many millennials – includes challenging the hyper-competitiveness of modern society and embracing simpler and nature-connected lives. During the 618 mid-year promotion, sales of “glamping” products jumped by over 130 per cent, led by products such as vintage camping lights, portable coffee makers, barbeque gear, outdoor clothing, and fishing equipment. Among the fishing enthusiasts, buyers under 18 years old increased by about 190 per cent.
Consumerism offers young people an escape from their daily pressures, fuelled by the rise of “shoppertainment” activities like livestreaming and social commerce. More young people are opting to delay marriage and/or remain single.
Meanwhile pet ownership has skyrocketed in the past two years. During shopping festivals, including last year’s 11.11 as well as this year’s 618, cat food was the top-selling category on Tmall Global. In 2021, 618 also saw sales of pet beauty products increase by 109% year on year.
#5 – Align your brand’s mission and values with consumer priorities
Brands with a clear mission, vision or carrying strong messages of values resonate most with China’s new generation of conscious consumers. The pandemic has accelerated interest in sustainability as consumers seek out brands, products, services, and retailers with values and purpose that are aligned with what’s important to them. While it isn’t China-specific, a younger generation of consumers, employees and investors expect greater transparency and stricter ethical business codes from the brands they buy, the companies they work for and the firms they invest in. It’s something that is also high on the Chinese government’s agenda. We are seeing business units and brands across Alibaba Group’s ecosystem harnessing this passion for sustainability.
Mim Figueiredo is head of cross-border e-commerce business development Europe at Tmall Global