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CHINA SPARKS A SOCIAL MEDIA SHOPPING REVOLUTION

By Laurna Woods

China’s change from a Communist to a consumer society has taken place at a pace and in a manner no one could have expected.

There’s a shopping revolution going on there that will have big implications for the future of e-commerce worldwide, with tendrils digging deep into retail marketing and social media.

In less than five years, smartphones have transformed the country into one at the cutting edge of mobile commerce. It’s slick, integrated and all-pervasive. And it’s being driven by a nation which is desperate to spend its new-found wealth.

There are 1.4billion Chinese. Each month, 500million make a purchase on their mobile. The big two tech platforms, Alibaba and Tencent, have dibs on 90 per cent of ecommerce and 85 per cent of social media – and one pollinates the other.

I’m convinced what’s going on there is the shape of things to come in the Western World.

Monetised social media

It’s safe to say the West is hooked on social media. If we’re not tweeting, we’re checking Facebook or updating our Insta. But the Chinese have monetised social media in ways that are both simple and radical. Their cross-fertilization is unlike any other economy in the world.

In the UK, we might see an item on Facebook then switch to Amazon to purchase it. In China, the two merge seamlessly. Adverts are integrated into the experience, and friends will swap details of the latest bargains.

There are shopping links right beside every product so users can buy in seconds, links to purchase products from chatrooms, from one product purchase to another, leading into  celebrity demonstrations of a product, through to a QR code shared by a friend.

What they have done is make it just too easy to buy. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of temptation every time someone goes online – it’s addictive and chaotic. And the Chinese want more, more, more …

Social has become a multi-dimensional experience in China and a consumer there would typically spend one hour on their mobile phone shopping ­– three times longer than in the United States.

And they have made online shopping as sociable as when I head for the high street on a shopping trip with my friends.

Making shopping social

A snack company, Three Squirrels, went from zero turnover to a $500million business in three years by providing more than 300 shop assistants online to deliver their 24/7 service. In the social media environment these assistants became consumers’ friends, their own little community.

When they weren’t helping people to buy, or telling them they’ve seen a scarf to match their shoes, they were telling them jokes. Social media in this instance redefines the relationship between brands, retailers and consumers.

One of the biggest trends driving purchases is around spontaneity. Just five years ago, a study found the average Chinese consumer bought five pairs of shoes each year.

Now, they are buying 25. Nobody could possibly wear through an extra 20 pairs of shoes a year – God knows, I’ve tried! – so why is it happening?

When asked, some said they were influenced by blogs, celebrity news and fashion inspiration, but for most there was no reason. They were buying whatever they saw!

The same spontaneous behaviour is being witnessed across all products and services, from groceries to insurance products, because consumers can find exactly what they want and it’s easy, fast, and fun.

The online shopping habit

There’s more to it than that, though. The sheer convenience of shopping without queues or wasting time in shops is driving people online. Shoppers will put down items and walk out of stores if they have to wait too long. The Chinese have learned that convenience is the glue that is making online shopping a behaviour and a habit that sticks.   

An example of that is Hema – a retail grocery concept by Alibaba that delivers a whole basket of shopping to your doorstep within 30 minutes. You want a live fish? Hema will deliver it. The firm has built stores in high density areas to guarantee freshness and speed – but these physical stores are also out performing their grocery rivals.

About 15 years ago, a friend who is in product design told me every product he worked on was built with China in mind first. I marvelled at the idea, but the years have shown me the good sense of that approach.

Back then, the West exported ideas to Beijing and beyond. I believe we’ll soon be importing China’s retail philosophy in just the same way we’ve imported their electrical goods.

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