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How is e-commerce in China different from the West?

How is Chinese e-commerce different from Western countries?


In China there are 800 million internet users, which is more than the total population of Europe, and more than the total internet users of the US and Europe COMBINED!

98% of them use a smartphone. That is more than double of the total USA population.

Mobile payments are very widespread. According to e-marketer, in China 81% of smartphones use mobile payments compared to 27% in the United States, and even less in many European countries.

When it comes to digital transformation in China, e-commerce is simply remarkable. Ten years ago, China’s e-commerce accounted for 1% of the world’s e-commerce, and in just one decade it went up to 42%. It has experienced annual growth rates of 296% in 2010 for instance.

In just a few years, Chinese e-commerce became the world’s biggest e-commerce market.

Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, said: “In the US, e-commerce is the dessert but in China it is the main course”.


But what makes e-commerce in China different from the west? Here are 7 key facts I have discovered while living in China for one year and a half:


1. Shopping experience

There’s no better example than the Singles Day vs. Black Friday shopping festivals.

Singles day 11-11 is a shopping festival that started in 2009 by Alibaba. The idea supposedly emerged from 4 college students who were single, and wanted to celebrate a day for single people, so it was 11/11 the chosen day to treat yourself.

Nowadays, singles day is the biggest shopping festival in the world . It’s just a few weeks before Black Friday in the USA, which is famous for the chaotic sales at stores. We have seen for years pictures of how people camp outside of stores to be the first to enter and get the best offers. After store doors open, people run in and they fight against each other to get discounted TV screens and all sorts of items:

Meanwhile, in China’s singles day, prices can be “reserved” weeks before singles day by paying a security deposit. People can buy the items they reserved sitting on their couches while watching the singles day gala, which is a show broadcasted nationwide.

Most people watch the gala because it is all about entertainment, viewers can have fun shopping while watching foreign artists like Katy Perry, Mariah Carey or Nicole Kidman, Cirque du Soleil performances, or watching Jack Ma perform as Michael Jackson:

Viewers can interact with the show through their phones, where they can play augmented reality games, get coupons, vote in polls, and watch in real time the sales across Alibaba’s platforms:

As all numbers in China are huge, Singles Day sales in the first 20 minutes were more than the total sales of Black Friday.

The graph below provided by Business Insider shows the total amount of sales in the Chinese and American shopping festivals.

Alibaba surely understands the importance of shopping experience. This is how high Chinese people’s expectations are.

2. Data collection makes shopping experience highly customizable

 In China, privacy concerns are way lower than in Western countries. This allows to collect more data about consumer behavior.

For instance, Alibaba uses machine learning to recognize patterns in shopping behavior. The more you shop, and the more you search, the more accurate the suggestions become, and the overall experience becomes highly tailor-made. As Alizzila puts it: product search results that have become uncannily accurate“.

You suddenly find suggestions of things you didn’t know you needed. It feels as if they are reading your mind. Not even the mind, but the subconscious mind because they know better than yourself what are the things you need, our will need.

Amazon suggestions are normally of similar items or things that other customers have bought, but the options are quite limited compared to the endless scroll down list of suggestions in Alibaba’s Taobao.

The comparison of product suggestions is shown below:


What other items do customers buy after viewing this item?


This is what I see when I open Taobao after a few searches I made for room decorations. And I can scroll down for a long time and still discover items that match my taste and my needs, but I was not necessarily browsing them.


3. People love buying through messaging apps and groups

Setting up stores can be really expensive for brands, so a lot of them choose to open online stores within Wechat, the most popular Chinese messaging up.

I bet this sounds a bit strange, buying things through the Chinese equivalent of whatsapp? But as a matter of fact, Wechat is a one-stop app for many functions such as paying bills, playing games, sharing life with friends, ordering food, transferring money to friends, booking flights and trains, among many other functions, like e-commerce.

Wechat has 1 billion monthly active users! The majority of which use the app to pay virtually anything, everywhere, all day long. 

Additionally, there are new e-commerce platforms emerging. For example, Xiaohongshu , which started a social media platform similar to Instagram and Pinterest, has recently integrated an e-commerce marketplace and is rapidly getting an important piece of cake in Chinese e-commerce. Pinduoduo , which is a group purchase platform, is another example of a rapidly growing e-commerce platform.


4. Customer service

Although overall customer service it is not great in China, it is a different story in ecommerce platforms. Chinese consumers are looking for personalized shopping experiences, which is why customer service is so important.

In China customer service is almost a shopping assistant service. People ask many questions before making an online purchase. So customer service is required in China as it is part of the sales process, whereas in the west we only call customer service if we have a problem.

Another advantage of the pre-sales customer service is that people can ask for discounts and I have seen that they are easily granted in platforms like Taobao for example. I had seen Chinese people like to bargain when shopping in markets, but I was surprised to find that in China you can even e-bargain!

Customer service in online Chinese platforms is sometimes even funny. I once got an “I love you” message from a store’s customer service in Taobao:


In fact, customer service tailored to Chinese people is one of the reasons that made Taobao, what was the time of a small platform created by Alibaba, defeat its big and international counterpart Ebay in the Chinese market.

Alibaba understood better the needs of Chinese sellers, so it removed the multiple fees for vendors that Ebay was charging and had vendor support chat to encourage and help sellers to perform better. Taobao also made it easy for buyers and sellers interact with each other.

It was such a success for Alibaba that just after a few years, Ebay closed its offices in China.This proves how essential personalized customer service is in the Chinese market.

Alibaba knows this well and it is now using Artificial Intelligence to create chatbots that help sellers deal with the heavy load of messages. According to Alizila, it is able to handle up to 95% of customer service inquiries service inquiries, and with machine learning, it tries to mimic human interaction.

In contrast, what I have experienced in other countries is that sometimes it’s nearly impossible to find customer service numbers and all you are left with is the endless FAQ list. And when you do find the number, you have to “wait in line for the next available representative”, hoping that this time your problem will actually be solved.


5. Product information

The incredible amount of information and content you find about each product on Chinese platforms, really leaves you without questions. Typically, most products have at least one video, several pictures, 3 – 5 key selling points, number of items sold, very detailed information about origin, materials, authenticity certificates, suggested uses, history of the brand, among others.




6. Delivery costs are VERY cheap:

The Chinese government has heavily invested in all sorts of infrastructure projects across the country and this, combined with cheap labor cost, have made the distribution costs of parcels very cheap. On average, the delivery cost in China is less than $2 USD per parcel, compared to $5 to $10 USD in the USA.

Moreover, the last mile delivery is less challenging in China than in other developed countries thanks to thousands of delivery guys across the country who the move the daily 76,000 parcels in their far from fancy electric motorbikes.

Just in 2018 the number of parcels delivered in China was more than 50 billion.

The last mile delivery in images:

                         Chinese “Kuaidi”                                             The American “UPS guy”

7. Digital payment system:

Differently from many Western countries, most Chinese people went straight from cash to mobile payment (skipping the widespread use of credit card payments).

The two main payments systems are Alipay and Wechat pay, and they are used for all sorts of transactions.  Paying with your phone is as simple as scanning a QR code and authorizing with your fingerprint. This of course makes e-commerce transactions very efficient, and the paying process is seaming-less.

In China cashiers don’t ask “cash or card?”, they ask “Wechat or Alipay?”. They would probably give you a weird look if you take out your wallet, but if you take out your card they would completely freak out.

There has even been some evidence of beggars accepting mobile payments with a QR code hanging from the neck.

In the near future, it will be possible to pay basically just with your face. Facial recognition payments are happening now in China, although they are not as widespread as QR codes yet.


To conclude:

I wanted to illustrate how China is now a trend-setter in e-commerce, and it is a huge market full of opportunities for foreign brands. However, it is imperative for brands to localize their strategies, to understand the local culture, and to be prepared to educate Chinese consumers about Western products, since they are not familiar with many brands or products that for us are simply normal.

When coming to China we have to stop doing things as we do in other countries, we have to think out of the box and most importantly, stop assuming that China will adopt a Western culture or follow Western rules. Although they like to follow Western trends, as a matter of fact it is us as foreigners who need to understand how Chinese people perceive and interpret our product, our concept or our ideas, and how it meets their tastes, lifestyle, beliefs, etc. in order to adapt in a respectful and creative way.

Many of us have the wrong idea about China before coming. But when you start discovering China you realize that nowadays it is much more than a manufacturing country. It is a very dynamic place where innovation happens at a very high pace. And e-commerce is just one example of what we live every day in Digital China.



Zayde Gutierrez Gallardo

International Business Professional



References: infographic / # 60c5a4ac7092


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