In the concluding article of our E-commerce Challenges in the BRIC series, we highlight the challenges faced by online retail companies in China. While China is one of the rapidly growing online retail markets, we discuss how aspects such as growing local competition, infrastructure deficiencies, issues with online security for buyers, and heavy dominance of price-based competition hinder the expansion of e-commerce in the country.
Given the Chinese economic growth story, good performance of its e-commerce market comes as no surprise. Exploding middle and upper class, rapidly growing disposable incomes, rising internet penetration, fascination with foreign brands and mobile solutions, all add up to a perfect scenario for online retail to flourish.
According to McKinsey & Company, China’s online retail market, estimated at US$210 billion in 2012, is the world’s second largest market after USA. It is expected that by 2015, it will reach US$305 billion and surpass the US market, having grown at a CAGR of around 34% during the 2010-2015 period. With the size of even up to US$650 billion by 2020, the momentum is expected to continue, especially that industry analysts emphasize that in China’s case, e-commerce has strong effect of generating additional consumption, and not only drives change of sales channels from the otherwise existent off-line sales.
Thanks to the favorable dynamics, Chinese e-commerce has been named the most promising destination for online retailers, which found reflection in China’s first position in AT Kearney’s 2012 E-commerce Index. Unlike in other markets, Chinese e-commerce space is dominated by virtual market places, where a plethora of merchants sell their products, without the need to invest in opening and managing own online stores. However, aspects such as these, along with other specific characteristics of the market, make doing e-commerce business in China a challenge.
Strong and consolidating position of local players – the Chinese e-commerce market is dominated by Alibaba’s consumer-serving arms: consumer-to-consumer e-commerce platform, Taobao, and business-to-consumer marketplace, Tmall, which together account for close to 90% market share. Several local and foreign merchants, such as Microsoft, are increasingly joining Tmall and other e-marketplaces (as opposed to opening own online stores) to sell their products online to Chinese consumers, which leads to further consolidation of Alibaba’s position in the market. While the market is growing and space is expanding to absorb new entries, such strong and established local players are a significant challenge for newcomers, as well as existing online retailers.
Dominance of price-based competition – despite strong local players both in the field of direct online retailing as well as e-marketplaces, majority of them do not offer any particular differentiating factor or unique proposition. However, what makes competing with them particularly difficult is their ability to slack the prices and enter into price competition. With price being the key platform of competing, achieving profitability is very difficult, or even impossible, for instance, for retailers who sell imported products subject to high import duties.
Considerable infrastructure deficiencies – Infrastructure woes are a common challenge affecting e-commerce markets developing across all BRIC markets, including China. Only metropolitan areas have sufficient infrastructure to ensure that product delivery can reach in time (and reach at all). In rural areas and locations far from main hubs, there is no guarantee the orders will reach the customer, as the road infrastructure and delivery services tend to be non-existent or fragmented. The infrastructure issues are often indicated as the biggest challenge that hinders realization of the country’s full e-commerce potential, as online retailers are not able to control and improve the entire supply chain. This challenge is particularly difficult, given the already high expectations of Chinese online consumers, who not only expect wide selection and attractive prices, but also excellent and fast services, including short delivery times.
Insufficient security solutions for consumers to shop online – despite numerous industry analysts agreeing that the market will continue to grow with large numbers of consumers joining the online shopping crowd, there is a common consensus that security-related risks in China are still significant. This includes issues such as product quality, payment security, information security, consumer rights protection, illegal transactions, etc. All of these aspects still significantly impact consumer trust, deterring many of them from shopping online. Also, e-commerce providers have little control over these risk factors, as the security of online payment is handled by a third party. Cash-on-delivery method is not very popular due to other risks (robbery, fraud, etc.), which drives some e-commerce companies to partner with security services providers or to double the number of own couriers sent to deliver the order and collect the payments, to eliminate fraudulent activities (which generates considerable costs).
Low internet penetration in rural areas of the country – while the overall internet penetration is increasing, majority of this growth occurs in urban and metropolitan areas. Currently, it is estimated that not more than 35% of Chinese population uses internet, a ratio below levels in many developing countries. As large proportion of Chinese consumers is still located in the countryside, the internet usage growth confined to the cities limits the internet user base growth for the time being. Moreover, rural-based consumers are not very likely to start using the internet and build an interest in online shopping very soon. Therefore, e-commerce players are challenged with having their customer base currently limited mostly to tier 1 to tier 3 cities.
E-commerce in China is booming, in spite of several teething problems around infrastructure, online and offline security, and low internet penetration. The bigger challenges, however, impact new entrants, which are faced by a highly intensive competitive environment and a market driven purely by price competition. E-commerce will continue to grow in China; there is no question about it. The pace of growth will depend on how the market environment changes to mitigate the risks emanating from the current set of challenges.