Social Shopping in China—The Future of E-Commerce

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The pervasiveness of smartphones has evolved the shopping ecosystem in China. By the end of 2017, China had 731 million consumers using phones to go online, or 95.1% of internet users in the country. One no longer needs to visit a mall to buy a product; every product we could dream of it at our fingertips. Mini-programs, social media, and mobile e-commerce platforms have integrated shopping into our daily lives. Ken Ardali, former director of international e-commerce business development at Alibaba Group—China’s leading online retailer—had a message for those looking to do business in China: “For the Chinese, shopping online is a lifestyle.” Novelty, brand identity, social status, and creative influencers all play key parts in the buyer’s journey from sight visit to product purchase.

Perhaps one of the greatest evolutions in e-commerce has been the mixing of social network engagement and the convenience of online shopping; call it “social shopping,” if you will. According to a Nielson study, in comparison to their Western counterparts, China’s online shoppers are far more willing to engage and communicate with others their shopping experiences and product reviews through WeChat and other social media platforms. According to the China Internet Network Information Center (CINIC), good shopping experiences are regarded as equally important as good price and promotions in terms of driving repeat purchases. This demonstrates the growing maturity of Chinese consumers and China’s shift from ‘price-driven’ to ‘service-driven’ e-commerce.

This increasing willingness to participate in social commerce, simply put, makes these customers content creators—but all creators are not equal. Some reviewer’s opinions are held in such high regard that they have reshaped the online marketing as we know it.  These Key Opinion Leaders (KOL’s)—those such as Gogoboi, a Chinese fashion blogger whose quick, snarky takes on celebrities’ style earned him his fame—have incredible influence over consumer preferences. Consumers feel more connected to these social media giants; they see their daily lives, their struggles, their successes; consumers relate to these KOL’s and therefore trust what they have to say. Celebrities have mass appeal, but connect less with their audience.

KOL’s represent the seamless integration of e-commerce and the social environment; this integration is a core pillar of social shopping’s success and has resulted in a type of ‘fan economy.’ As a KOL fashion blogger says, so goes the market, and there are many channels for monetization of a KOL’s influence. They have meticulously built very loyal, trusting fanbases; fanbases that like to spend money. Jian Yilei, a Chinese video blogger, sold an advertising slot on her live broadcast to Lily & Beauty. More than 410,000 people watched her live broadcast and she generated 20 million yuan in revenue in two hours.


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Platforms such as WeChat are what make the social shopping ecosystem a reality. Its payment integration system creates an online version of a ‘see now, buy now model. It invites readers or viewers to make a purchase immediately after listening to a KOL on WeChat. Different industries are attempting to optimize their online shopping experiences using these types of platforms, and firms cannot fall behind in this trend. While China’s fan economy and culture is driven more extensively by mobile devices than the Western world’s, that will not always be the case. Western firms need to start looking at these marketing and e-commerce solutions now, because once the sprint starts it will be all too easy to fall behind in the race.

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