Rise Of The Chinese Retail Market

If you are looking for growth markets in e-Commerce, look no further than China. Once dismissed as too difficult to break into, the Chinese market is now more accessible to retailers than ever before.

With more than 500 million Internet users, China boasts an e-Commerce market which grew by 29% in 2011, to a total volume of $23 billion. In our business, we have seen a 200% growth in demand for Chinese payment solutions from U.S. and European retailers in the past year.

The Chinese Marketplace

The Chinese government’s currency policy is to increase domestic consumption.  And, due to increasing inflation, Chinese consumers are actually spending a lot — both online and offline. However, knowing where to start to break into an unknown market can be daunting, especially when there are significant cultural, political and economic differences.  Following are a few insights:


The leading payment platform for e-Commerce in China is Alipay, part of the Alibaba Group which also runs the B2C and C2C marketplace Taobao, similar to eBay.  With 48% of market share, Alipay is very much comparable to PayPal. It claims to process up to 34 million transactions per day for 700 million registered Chinese consumer accounts. The fact that Alipay grew from 550 million to 700 million consumer accounts in 2011 demonstrates the sheer size and growth of e-Commerce in China.

The most popular products bought online in China are regularly used goods like perfumes and toiletries. Shoes and clothing, software downloads and games are very successful, too. Due to low average incomes, high priced goods like electronics and furniture are not always easy to sell online. However, there is an increasing trend towards Chinese consumers saving and investing in prestigious western brands, even if they are expensive.

Successful e-Commerce requires a good, solid infrastructure, and China actually provides just that. Shipping and delivery services are fast and affordable, even to remote areas, and while broadband Internet access is relatively fast in big cities, many consumers use their mobile devices to access the Internet from anywhere.

Little Differences Of Note

Unlike in the U.S., having a “mobile shop” is considered a key success factor in China. You will find other little differences when conducting business in China, too.  For instance, don’t expect Chinese consumers to respond quickly to e-mails — it could take weeks. If you want to get a message across quickly you should integrate messaging services into your online store. Many online retailers in China use messaging services like QQ for order confirmations or tracking services.

Another area of difference is payment. Consumers are creatures of habit when it comes to money, and unlike in the western world, credit cards are not popular for buying online in China. Visa and MasterCard have no footprint there, and even the credit cards from China Union Pay (CUP) are not thriving either. There are several reasons for this: firstly, because Chinese consumers have to specifically apply to use their credit card for e-Commerce; secondly, if they do, they have to pay a fee for every transaction they process over the Internet; and then, last but not least, many Chinese banks redirect their credit card customers to their online banking website. After putting in the card data, Chinese cardholders then need to go through a full online bank transfer process in order to finish the card payment. It takes a lot of time and patience.

As a direct result of these challenges, Chinese consumers have learned to love trusted wallet payments like Alipay. The second largest wallet provider there, with 20% market share, is Tenpay.  Tenpay is part of the Tencent Group which is very successful in providing value-added Internet and telecom services like or QQ Games. Given its origins, Tenpay is good for addressing younger people and the gaming community.

There are other smaller players such as China Union Pay or 99bill, each of which covers market shares of around 8% to 9%.

Opportunities And Challenges

Retailers should have a closer look at the growth opportunities available in Asia.  If you sell valued brands or day-to-day goods or services, there is a fast growing market for these kinds of products.

You will most likely encounter challenges, but these can all be overcome. For instance, some retailers report that slow Internet connections hinder the download of product images. However, this can be surmounted by working with service providers like CD Networks or Datapipe, which offer a kind of distributed proxy service in order to reduce the distance that data has to travel, providing a swift user experience for consumers.

Other challenges that are easily resolved are logistics, tax regulation and tariff calculations. In order to save time and effort, retailers can work with full service providers like arvato, eShop World, Hermes or Moduslink. They provide tools and services that calculate duties and tariffs in an instant. Once you have these lined up, it is relatively easy to test how Chinese consumers will react to your products or services.

And, if you decide to build a legal entity in China, Hong Kong is the perfect place to start. It provides legal stability and a legal system similar to the UK. A Chinese national would never deem a Hong Kong company to be Chinese; however, despite this, the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between mainland China and Hong Kong not only allows retailers to run operations in mainland China without a state owned partner, it also provides significant tax advantages.

It has never been easy to reach out to new shores, but the opportunity is there for the taking. Provided the product fits the market, the booming Chinese economy promises a bright future and will be worth the effort for many retailers. The sleeping Asian tiger of old has most definitely awakened.

Ralf Gladis is the co-founder and managing director of the German based companies Computop GmbH and Computop International GmbH. He also is a non-executive Director of the Board at Computop, Inc.

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