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The New Retail: Lessons from China for the West


By Chris Biggs, Amee Chande, Liyan Chen, Erica Matthews, Pierre Mercier, Angela Wang, and
Linda Zou

M uch has been written about the

move online by Chinese consumers
and the country’s explosive growth in
ecommerce as well as between online and
offline commerce. Shopping is a social ex-
perience, not a solitary one. The Chinese
ecommerce. Less well understood is how consumer’s unique path from prepurchase
Chinese shoppers use the internet—and to purchase holds valuable lessons for re-
how their buying experience differs from tailers in the West.
that of consumers in other markets.
This article, the second in a series on the
In the West, ecommerce originally emerged new retail concept, explores the differences
as a more efficient way to shop. Today, con- between the buying experience of Western
sumers still go online to shop because it is and Chinese consumers and provides a
often easier, faster, and more convenient window into what may be the future of
than going to a store. Many ecommerce shopping.
players optimize their platforms for effi-
ciency by building search functions, pay-
ment features, and delivery capabilities. Search Versus Highly
They want customers to shop frequently Personalized Discovery
and quickly. Because online shopping is often optimized
for efficiency in the West, customer behav-
In contrast, ecommerce in China has been ior in the prepurchase phase is mostly about
about providing a richer alternative to tra- searching. Consumers typically go to an on-
ditional shopping. Consumers like to spend line retailer, such as Amazon, or a compa-
time in a discovery-driven online world of ny’s website with a specific item in mind.
energetic chaos where shopping is an ad- Category details—such as product, style,
venture. Ecommerce players optimize their color, and size—help buyers drill down and
platforms for customer engagement, blur- narrow their search. The payment page is
ring the lines between entertainment and automatically filled with personal details to

For more on this topic, go to bcgperspectives.com

Comparing Two Online Journeys
Search for
small gift bags Add the
and read wedding Browse for
Search for product re- invitations chocolates,

Browse for wedding gifts Read views; receive and the gift Purchase check types
Search for inspiration; for fiancé; reviews to Purchase a suggestion bags for the the invita- and price Purchase
wedding settle on decide to Browse for finalize the for wedding favors to tions and range, and the
favors chocolates buy cufflinks cufflinks choice cufflinks invitations the cart the gift bags read reviews chocolates

Pinterest Wedding Brand Style Brand Chocolatier Chocolatier

Google and Amazon Amazon Amazon
websites websites blogs website websites website

Receive a
notification that
See the story a live-streaming

“Eight Ideas for Post a question Join a brand’s fan show hosted by a

Wedding to the community party on Tmall;1 favorite celebrity Add all items to
Click on personal- Favors”; click to asking what Pursue a sug- Select specialty browse the is about to start; the basket and
ized landing read and follow people buy for gestion for choc- chocolates and brand’s latest click to watch and purchase with
page; content the embedded wedding favors; olates and chat small gift bags; collection and order the featured a single click;
is based on links to products receive responses with a merchant add items to decide to order perfume while follow delivery via
previous activity and stores within minutes to find out more favorites cufflinks for fiancé viewing the app


Online searching Online shopping Online exploring

Source: BCG analysis.
A fan party sponsored by a brand showcases new products to followers and offers them special promotions.

speed the transaction. Mission accomplished! the US or Europe. Everything consumers

The online shopping experience is fast, see on their screen is customized and up-
smooth, and easy. (See the exhibit.) dated in real time. Suggestions—whether
for promotions or new brands or content—
In China, the typical consumer behaves tend to be spot-on, even those that are for
very differently. Instead of searching for items consumers didn’t know they wanted
specific items online in the prepurchase or needed. Such experiences drive excep-
phase, Chinese consumers embark on a tionally high click- and follow-through
journey of exploration and discovery—as if rates, as well as longer online visits.
they are going to the mall with friends or
family. Chinese consumers go online to see China’s shoppers rarely make an online
what’s new or what’s trending, sometimes store their destination. In addition to receiv-
many times a day. This is partly because of ing suggestions from an online marketplace,
the highly personalized and rapidly chang- Chinese consumers discover new brands and
ing nature of the online shopping experi- products through an array of digital chan-
ence, which not only enables product dis- nels and content. For instance, they may see
covery but also helps consumers make an item they like on social media, in a mu-
lifestyle choices. sic video, in an online fashion show, in a
makeup tutorial, or on a news site.
Online merchants in the US offer product
suggestions on the basis of a consumer’s China’s integrated digital platforms enable
searches or buying history. Marketplaces this content-led discovery. Even though
such as Alibaba’s Taobao in China use such many of the engaging online channels are
data as well, but they also capture other not overtly related to shopping, if Chinese
types, such as social interaction and loca- consumers see something they like, they
tion data, and employ analytics, artificial can buy it immediately through embedded
intelligence, and personalization. The re- purchase links. As a result, the path from
sult is a curated shopping experience discovery to purchase is seamless. These
achieved by few—if any—companies in instant “buy what you see” opportunities

The Boston Consulting Group • Alibaba 2

take product placement and ease of pur- Bobbi Brown. Users can take selfies,
chasing to the next level—one not yet seen share the photos with friends, and buy
in Western markets. In the US, when con- products directly from the app.
sumers see something they like on Pinter-
est, Facebook, or WhatsApp, they usually •• On WeChat, China’s most popular
have to exit the app to search for the prod- social media app, cybercelebrities with
uct and buy it. China’s version of Pinterest, big followings promote their brands by
Xiaohongshu, is an ecommerce site where posting messages to their network—
consumers can buy what they see right messages that include not only their
there. In other words, in China, discovery products but also a payment button so
and purchasing are integrated, whereas in consumers can buy on the spot. Similar-
the West, they are separate. ly, celebrities on Taobao who have more
than 1 million followers can monetize
their fame by selling directly. On both
Myriad Ways to Discover platforms, celebrities have become
Like consumers in the West, China’s con- online entrepreneurs, building large
sumers go online to be entertained, to edu- internet businesses. Although revenues
cate themselves, and to share with friends from these ventures account for only 7%
on social media. The important difference of the total e-retail market, the social
is that in China, buying opportunities are media channel is growing in importance
woven seamlessly into these activities. Mer- as a driver of brand awareness and
chants partner with content providers and sales.
key opinion leaders, such as celebrities and
experts, to create innovative, engaging on- •• On Taobao, Tmall, and JD.com, China’s
line experiences that generate buzz, draw leading online marketplaces, merchants
in consumers, and lead to sales through can promote their products by live
embedded purchase links. Although some streaming events, not unlike the TV
companies in the West have experimented shopping channel QVC in the US. For
with content-driven discovery, it is not yet instance, rural farmers used Taobao’s
commonplace. In contrast, as the following live-streaming feature to market their
examples show, China’s digital environ- kumquats for the Chinese New Year.
ment is rife with experimentation: But China’s live streams tend to engage
more consumers, since they often
•• P&G and Memebox offer video tutorials feature well-known experts or popular
using well-known makeup artists. For a internet celebrities—and a direct
generation of only children who don’t purchase link, of course. According to
have a big sister to go to for advice, China Tech Insights, an industry
tutorials such as these fill an impor- research project, live-streaming reve-
tant need. nues reached $246 million during the
summer months of 2016 alone. On
•• Baby Tree embeds purchase links to Taobao, every 1 million views results in
featured products in its content that 320,000 items added to customers’
focuses on baby advice and mother- shopping baskets. Some industry
hood. An educational portal and observers believe that live streaming
growing ecommerce site that has an will become a standard feature on
online community of 30 million users, China’s ecommerce platforms in the
Baby Tree enables brand and merchant not-so-distant future.
partners to leverage its user base.
In China, market influence is an ongoing,
•• Tmall offers buyers a “digital mirror” two-way street, driven by merchants and
app for their smartphones. The mirror consumers alike. New concepts created by
lets online shoppers virtually apply as brands and merchants attract consumers’
many as 2,000 makeup shades from attention and curiosity, which then inspire
well-known brands, such as L’Oréal and another cycle of innovation and discovery.

The Boston Consulting Group • Alibaba 3

The Next Big Things in the customer’s online account, giving
Consumer Discovery the retailer a full omnichannel view of
As the examples above make clear, mer- the customer. Drawing on this rich data
chants and brands in China are moving to- set, Wumart can recommend products
ward an integrated omnichannel retail mod- and promotions to customers and
el that capitalizes on the strengths of online increase the appeal of its merchandise.
and offline commerce, delivering a seam-
less, compelling customer experience. In •• Last year during 11/11 (China’s version
this new world, discovery is ongoing, all the of Black Friday), Alibaba worked with
time—online, offline, and across all chan- more than 1 million stores across
nels. We already see some examples of this various product categories to present
in the West with the AmazonFresh click- shoppers with an integrated online-
and-collect model and the Starbucks loyalty offline experience. For instance, custom-
app. Ultimately the distinction between on- ers who bought items at the Gap’s
line and offline commerce will disappear. online store could have them shipped to
the nearest brick-and-mortar Gap
This future is coming faster to China than store—in hours instead of days. At the
to the West. In the West, the prepurchase, physical stores, shoppers could scan a
purchase, and postpurchase phases of the QR code to buy an item and have it
consumer journey are segmented across shipped to their home.
channels and online platforms. This lack of
integration drives the transactional nature In this integrated future, merchants and
of ecommerce activity. In China, the phases brands will make business and merchandis-
of the purchase journey are much more in- ing decisions in response to how consum-
tegrated, so the online and offline experi- ers react to and behave across all channels.
ences are more seamless. (See the sidebar “Understanding Chinese
This online-offline integration is blurring
the distinction among channels. It’s hap-
pening more quickly in China for two rea- Building a Discovery-Driven
sons: ecommerce technology is more ad- Consumer Journey
vanced, and physical retail is less Online merchants and brands that build ef-
developed, so there’s a smaller base of leg- fective discovery-driven consumer journeys
acy stores to protect. There are several are more likely to deepen consumer en-
signs of this new future: gagement and generate higher sales vol-
ume. Although some Western companies
•• Alibaba is experimenting with virtual are beginning to move in this direction,
reality through its Buy+ events, which their Chinese counterparts tend to be far
were introduced last fall. The events use more advanced. To increase the discovery
virtual reality to make online customers aspects of their online experience, retailers
feel as if they’re at a physical mall that should consider the following questions:
has global merchants, such as Costco,
Target, and Macy’s. More than 8 million •• How can we personalize the consum-
shoppers have tried out the experience, er journey even more? To most online
using embedded purchase links to merchants in the West, personalization
quickly buy items that caught their eye. means greeting the consumer by name
and making product suggestions on the
•• China’s Wumart, a leading grocery basis of past searches or purchases.
retailer with more than 1,000 stores, Instead, retailers should go further and
recently launched a mobile wallet that use data and analytics to customize the
customers can use to simplify payment shopping journey on a deeper level. For
during checkout in physical stores. The instance, merchants could offer different
offline customer transaction data collect- pathways for different needs: automatic
ed by the app is then integrated with replenishment for basic items, social

The Boston Consulting Group • Alibaba 4

With strong growth of consumer spending sumers are not necessarily brand loyal.
projected in China over the next five With the exception of luxury goods,
years, global retailers are taking notice. loyalty to global brands is waning. In fact,
But who’s doing most of the buying? The these consumers are open to new
typical Chinese consumers are young, live products and brands—especially those
in urban areas, are part of the growing that engage them with innovative
middle class, and save less than their offerings and the creative use of multi-
parents or grandparents despite earning a media.
sizable income. Although China’s eco-
nomic growth is slowing, these consumers The typical Chinese consumers do more
are optimistic that their earnings and than half of their online shopping using
standard of living will increase over time. a mobile phone, increasing the likeli-
And as their income rises, they buy more hood of shopping at all times, whether
premium products, trading up to healthier on the bus, in an elevator, or at work. By
food and pricier cosmetics. contrast, Western consumers typically
spend two-thirds of their day on laptops
Although more brand aware than and only one-third on a mobile device.
consumers in the West, Chinese con-

media for major purchase decisions, live requires creating social content—such
shows for splurges, and so forth. Some as online events or celebrity-hosted
Western brands are beginning to tutorials—that can generate buzz, live
experiment with this. Sephora’s Virtual conversations, brand recommendations,
Artist tool helps users develop a person- and sales.
alized product wish list using their
in-store and online history. •• How can we make the path from
discovery to purchase more seam-
•• How can we use online content to less? In China, ecommerce technology,
build our brands? In China, creatively such as Baby Tree’s product links or
using content and multimedia is an Tmall’s see-now, buy-now functionality,
integral part of ecommerce and brand is often embedded in the content. This
building. Merchants take traditionally type of marketing content builds brands
offline experiences—such as fashion while driving sales.
shows or game shows—and scale them
online to reach a much broader audi- •• How can we develop an integrated
ence. Investments such as these turn consumer journey on our mobile
transactional commerce into experien- platform? In China, online merchants
tial commerce, while changing consum- and brands know that discovery
er expectations and behaviors. Some happens on the go. They understand
Western companies are already moving how consumers use their mobile
in this direction. Burberry, for example, devices and build mobile platforms to
has been using live events to engage make buying seamless. For example,
consumers in “see now, buy now” Keep, a health and fitness startup,
purchases. allows customers to purchase sports
equipment directly from the app they
•• How can we develop a social com- use to monitor their workout. Western
merce business? Traditional social companies that want to convert internet
marketing advertises brands or prod- surfers into buyers must do more than
ucts through embedded links and posts adapt their website to run on a mobile
on social media. Social commerce device.

The Boston Consulting Group • Alibaba 5

Making this shift toward a more discovery- capabilities. We’ll address these changes in
led consumer journey requires a deep evo- the next article in our series.
lution in a company’s operating model and

About the Authors

Chris Biggs is a partner and managing director in the London office of The Boston Consulting Group and
the digital topic leader for the Consumer practice. You may contact him by email at biggs.chris@bcg.com.

Amee Chande is the managing director of global strategy and operations with Alibaba. You may contact
her by email at amee.chande@alibaba-inc.com.

Liyan Chen is a corporate relations analyst with Alibaba. You may contact her by email at

Erica Matthews is head of corporate relations for Alibaba. You may contact her by email at

Pierre Mercier is a senior partner and managing director in BCG’s London office and a core member of
the Consumer practice. You may contact him by email at mercier.pierre@bcg.com.

Angela Wang is a partner and managing director in the firm’s Beijing office. You may contact her by
email at wang.angela@bcg.com.

Linda Zou is a project leader in BCG’s London office. You may contact her by email at zou.linda

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The Boston Consulting Group • Alibaba 6