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In just a few short years, the Chinese e-commerce market has grown to surpass that in the US to become the world’s biggest online retail marketplace. Nowhere was the consuming power of its citizens more fully illustrated than the recent Singles Day (Nov 11) shopfest on Alibaba’s e-commerce websites where $1 billion worth of goods was sold within the first opening 17 minutes and the total sales for the day reached $9.3 billion, an amount which eclipses the combined online sales of Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the US ($2.9 billion in 2013) by a huge margin (see China’s Consumer Power Unleashed – $9 Billion Singles Day Sales).

The emergence of this vast Chinese consumer market makes the understanding of its behavior a strategic imperative for companies and brands catering to the country’s domestic consumers as well as their outbound travelers. Though there are more similarities than differences between Chinese consumers and their Western counterparts, it pays to be aware of their differences in order to better cater to their needs.

Some of these nuances were highlighted by a recent report from Alibaba, China’s undisputed king of e-commerce with up to 80% share of the market. Although outlined within the context of the domestic market, a lot of these nuances are directly applicable to the outbound Chinese travel industry.

Online shopping adoption

Despite the much later introduction of e-commerce into China than in the West, its acceptance by Chinese consumers has been much faster. 75% of Chinese shop online weekly compared with a global average of 21%, according to a recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

In addition, mobile internet is quickly becoming the most important channel upon which online transactions are conducted. Thanks to the widespread adoption of smart phones, 75% of Chinese consumers said they have used their mobile phone to shop, compared with a global average of 43%, according to the same report. The fact that nearly half of all transactions on Alibaba’s e-commerce platform during the past Singles Day were mobile transactions is further proof of this behavior.

Understanding this behavior is all the more important for travel operators and activity providers, as a lot of activities are typically booked post arrival at the destinations. Having information and a booking mechanism which are easily accessible from a mobile device would go a long way in helping these travelers make their decisions.

Online Marketplaces over Standalone Shopping Websites

Whereas the bulk of e-commerce in the West is done on either websites established by traditional retailers or on pure-play e-commerce portals, about 90% of e-commerce is done in online marketplaces where there are thousands of virtual shops and other service providers such as delivery companies, according to the Alibaba report.

Although there might be an inherent bias in this assessment by virtue of Alibaba being the owner of many of these mega online marketplaces, the conclusion is probably not too far off the mark. In a country where counterfeit goods and consumer fraud are all too common, it would have been counter-intuitive that online shopping is as widely adopted as it has been, had it not been for the fact that the trusted brands of major e-commerce portals and built-in escrow based e-payment services provide the critical confidence boosting elements for consumers to shop there.

The same need for transactional safety is even more important for Chinese travelers contemplating an online purchase in a foreign country. Besides the well known OTAs, portals associated DMOs or formed by a collection of activity and service providers would provide the inspirational content, credibility, confidence and convenience for travelers to search for ideas and make their purchases online.

For well known destinations and established brands, standalone websites with a booking engine would also make economic sense.

Social Approval

Not only do Chinese consumers pay more attention to product recommendations from friends and online reviews, more netizens participate by posting product feedback. Combined with the high propensity for Chinese travelers to post on social media about their travels during and after the trips (see 4 Key Functions the Travel Industry Should Know about WeChat), it would not be difficult to conclude that social media presence is an indispensable pillar of engagement for hoteliers and activity providers alike.

Need More Assurance

In a similar logical vein to the low level of trust by Chinese consumers due to consumer frauds mentioned above, Chinese consumers typically demand relatively more information about the products and their vendors compared to shoppers in Western countries where consumer protection is more mature.

Good information about the service providers, the products and services they offered, logistical details, quality assurances, commonly asked questions and, ideally, customer service over the phone in their language would be a major differentiator which would help overcome the psychological barrier to conversion.

Less Emphasis on Bargain Hunting, More on Choice and Experience

While prices were the most dominant driver to shop online a few years ago, more and more Chinese consumers do so for better choice, quality and merchandise not available at local brick-and-mortar stores.

The same shift in consumer motivations is also reflected in the relative allocations of their spending while they travel overseas. Luxury travels are more common especially among FIT travelers who seek slower-paced, unique and deep experiences over the traditional whirlwind tours and shopping sprees.

 

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