Chinese brick and mortar is crumbling: the future is all digital!

Benji is a digital marketing specialist based in Shanghai, he writes extensively on digital strategy in China and is passionate about providing solutions for western businesses looking to expand into the aptly named ‘mysterious orient’. For more information see his blog and website here.

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Traditional retail shopping in China is in decline alongside the continued growth of e-retail, online activity and digital spending generally. Retail revenue is falling by 15% year on year whilst the digital market grows by 25% per year. Unless businesses realize that the future is all digital they will incur the costs of not developing with the times.

Many malls with mainstream brands are struggling to generate enough revenue and attract a high footfall. There are also an increasing number of ‘ghost’ shopping areas, with many of the entrepreneurial peasant class opening shops with all their family savings only to find themselves closing within a year, the human cost is high. Small businesses are always hit hardest.

It is vital for western businesses to invest in digital first and foremost, ‘clicks not bricks’ should be your new mantra. There will always be some demand for physical shopping but those stores attracting the highest footfall are also implementing successful marketing campaigns on the Chinese internet, digital will always be a key component.

So why is traditional shopping on the decline and online now the solution?

1)      Convenience

The largest urban areas are increasingly polluted, congested and affected by overstretched public services, it is increasingly inconvenient to travel to shop, especially because of the size of the country. E-commerce offers an infinitely faster process with quality platforms such as ‘Tmall’ associated with genuine brands in a market known for counterfeits. Even if users are looking for copycat products platforms such as ‘Taobao’ are renowned for selling everything under the sun too. Shopping online is simply more convenient with quality not being sacrificed.

2)      Pace of life

Fast paced, frenetic modern China is still on an upward trajectory, this is a country (especially on the east coast) growing in a spectacular way. The new wave of Chinese careerists work hard and long hours, therefore the ease of e-commerce services combined with the speed of purchasing is a key factor. Online shopping is largely facilitated by the breakneck speed of modern China, it is a response to changing consumer habits.

3)      Alibaba have developed world leading e-commerce platforms

There is the quality of Chinese e-commerce to also consider. Retail outlets are always limited by where they can locate, the space available and high rental costs. Alibaba however grew online without such burdens and developed a world leading network and series of platforms which facilitated this move to digital e-commerce. Tmall, their flagship site is hosting official branded ‘stores’, it is popular with international brands as their target market regularly shop here. ‘Alipay’ the companies payment system also facilities cross border commerce with both RMB and international payments accepted.

4)      The nationwide e-commerce infrastructure has grown

With a select number of tier 1 cities boasting the best in shopping services other tier 2 and 3 urbanites were previously left out. Now however with the growth of Alibaba’s national delivery network smaller cities are benefiting from the same range of products on offer. Physical store expansion has inevitably not grown at this same rate due to the far higher costs, Chinese stores therefore need to embrace e-commerce and utilize the range of platforms on offer to grow in the digital sphere.

5)      China’s propensity for digital

The digital revolution in China has been unprecedented, this is especially so with the uptake of mass market smartphone technology. With such a strong mobile culture it is unsurprising that users also shop in this way. With e-commerce platforms optimized for mobile, shopping ‘on the go’ is a growing trend. The new wave of Chinese consumers are growing up in a culture where they expect this type of ‘instant gratification’ and e-shopping in such a strong consumer culture is inevitably affected.

6)      e-commerce in conjunction with WeChat’s social network has a promising future

It is still early days but businesses can now open micro stores on WeChat which can be linked to their official accounts. With WeChat pay already linked to users bank accounts this facilitates incredible ease of purchase. Marrying e-commerce and social media in this way is a revolutionary step that will further promote the rise of e-retail over traditional store shopping. When one door closes another one opens.

The good news is that for every Chinese merchant stuck in the offline paradigm, there is at least one getting there online game on. McKinsey has estimated 46m new online jobs will be created by 2025 against to 31m lost. It is timely that, with the Chinese states drive to move from a manufacturing economy towards a creative and innovative tertiary economy, that such digital growth has been witnessed. China is hurtling towards the future and commercial activities need to embrace new digital solutions to grow in this changing environment.

 

 

 

 

Declining Online Advertising ROI

Anyone in ecommerce – particularly those selling third party brands or running marketplaces – know the important of online advertising. Without Google Adwords or Facebook Ads, many remaining pure-play ecommerce websites would be doomed. And offline counterparts would struggle growing their online business. But ad placement has become extremely automate these days and it’s destroying any kind of ROI from online advertising. So as a online merchant, do you increase online ad spend or focus on ‘organic’ customer acquisition? (or dare I say it, offline advertising!?)

Below are five companies who provide some details about their online advertising budget: Ebay, Amazon, TripAdvisor, Expedia and Priceline. Combined, they have spent over $10 billion on online marketing in FY2015, mainly on digital ads. Their ROI of online advertising is declining: businesses need to spend more for every additional dollar of sale.

Change in advertising and sales, from 2010 to 2015 (source: SEC 10-K filings)

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Since 2010, their online ad spending outgrew their online B2C sales. This is a general trend in e-commerce: Google’s revenues are up 156% from 2010 to 2015, while online B2C sales roughly doubled. This is clearly not sustainable.

Now one might say online advertising (and advertising in general) can always be improved. However, the marketing departments of these huge online businesses are already well versed in online ads, true insiders to the market, and even their advertising efficiency is declining. One can only imagine the dreadful returns for outsiders, companies like Verizon or Walmart. Very few companies are transparent in their ad spending, so it’s impossible to really know what’s going on in their marketing departments.

The decline in bang for every ad dollar spent is proof that the expansion of online advertising is being done to the detriment of customers, in ever less productive campaigns.

Automation

The growth of ad exchanges, demand-side platforms, and programmatic buying has removed much of the need of human intervention in the process. User tracking enables advertisers to identify in real-time who is visiting any given website, and to match the visitor with an ad, instead of relying on the website’s content to draw an approximate profile of who might be viewing the webpage.

Automation has brought down the cost of deciding whether it’s worthwhile to place an ad, and user tracking has made websites’ content less relevant. It has become economical to place ads on low-end websites for cheap, because the marginal cost of placing an ad has become so low.
This means that the growth of online advertising has happened on subprime ad space. The industry’s argument is that it’s still worth their customers money, thanks to algorithms that check everything about the user, his browsing history, the cookies on his browser, his hardware data. This is a compelling case, because the prime as space on the Internet (websites such as The Economist, the New York Times) are very expensive. However, customers paying for their ads to be displayed have practically no way of making sure their ads are being displayed to the right people.
Brand

Moreover, the industry has been pushing for more advertising budgets to be allocated to “display ads”, particularly on mobile, where Internet users click on ads much less than on desktops. The huge red flag with this practice is that customers have no means of knowing if their ad dollars are being spent efficiently. With pay-per-click, at least someone is coming to their website. With display ads, they are merely paying for exposure and such vague concepts as “brand awareness”.

It’s not even clear if a visitor actually sees a “display” ad, and the industry is trying to set up a “viewability” standard for this type of ads. Currently, it is assumed that an ad has had a “reasonable chance of having been viewed by the visitor, if at least 50% of its pixels were displayed on the visitor’s browser for at least one continuous second”. This definition alone lets you understand how murky this type of advertising actually is.

“Display” caught up with pay-per-click in 2015, and is projected to reach $32.2 billion in the US in 2016, vs $29.3 billion for PPC. But the bigger question is, has time caught up with online advertising as a whole? And if so, as a merchant, what do we do about it? Is brand the solution and future of marketing period? Share your thoughts in the comments.

B2W

JD.com: Future World’s Largest Retailer?

If you don’t know about JD.com, think of it as China’s Amazon; a B2C ecommerce platform where you can buy just about anything. And now thanks to a fantastic analysis from Richard at Value Investor, you can learn just what they’re about today (and tomorrow).

The world’s largest middle class will create as many new retail giants in China and Asia at large as there are in North America and Europe combined. Despite the fact JD.com is already China’s largest B2C retailer, it still has enormous room for growth.

But the question for merchants outside China is going to be how can we take part? If you are selling to Asia (or more likely buying from) let us know what your future plans are for taking part in Asian ecommerce opportunity.

 

Clothing Finally Largest Ecommerce Category

The inevitable has happened – clothing is the number one ecommerce category by sales according to ComScore.

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As we all know I’m sure, Consumer Electronics has long been the King among stuff sold online, in part because of the early adopters of the Internet where more inclined to buy this stuff (read: geeks). Nevertheless, what’s perhaps more surprising is how long clothing has taken to surpass electronics.

There are three reasons for this I believe. The first is the aforementioned change in the makeup of consumers aka now everyone buys online, not just those geeks. Secondly, the smartphone has both consumed the entire electronics category – the PC, Laptop, Home Audio, TV, Camera, Camcorder and other devices are now largely mobile devices. Lastly, retailers are finally accepting folks want to buy clothes wherever – at home, in the office and not all in store anymore.

This is profound change and as always there will be winners and losers. Free shipping and returns – a standard for clothes where people often try before they buy – will put further pressure on bricks and mortar retailers. Brands will also begin participating in more direct to consumer stuff i.e why give a retailer margin when you can sell direct?

All in all, the brands stand to win and off course consumers will win. But what about both offline and online merchants?  They have to suck it up.

Marketplace Sellers

Andy Geldman has written a nice piece on the third party marketplace seller. Increasingly, this is the way to startup online for a variety of reasons but in particular due to customer/traffic opportunities and things like third party fulfilment. The elephant in the space is offcourse Amazon though others are entering the space.

As Andy says:

Those sales are made not by Amazon themselves, but by more than 2 million independent businesses – businesses which are largely hidden from view.

Read more at Pulse

Bricks and Mortar Fightback

As I mentioned in my last post, pure play ecommerce is hard. And now as the FT notes, bricks and mortar i.e physical retail are fighting back. The FT neatly sums up the state of ecommerce today:

…the growth of pure-play digital retailers is under threat as their marketplace becomes increasingly crowded. The big beasts of the UK high street have finally fought their way into the sector, meaning that digital retailing is no longer the preserve of digital businesses.

Read full FT article (paywall)