With a population of over 1.4 billion people, China possesses a massive market for ecommerce. This market has been rapidly growing and evolving in recent years, with cross-border ecommerce becoming an increasingly popular way for Chinese consumers to purchase goods from international brands.
For businesses looking to expand their global reach, China’s cross-border ecommerce market holds a wealth of opportunities. In this guide, we’ll dive into the key trends, major players, common challenges, and how to achieve success in China’s ecommerce market.
The Chinese Ecommerce Market in 2023
Powered by its huge population and boosted by rapid digitization, the Chinese ecommerce market is now the world’s largest ecommerce market—and by quite some margin. The country is expected to generate over $3 trillion in ecommerce sales in 2023, while the next largest market—the US—will reach a value of about $1.2 trillion.
Along with this position of prominence, China has developed a reputation for innovation, with ecommerce companies often looked to for new trends and features.
Who’s driving these innovations? While there are also a number of smaller, niche platforms that cater to specific audiences or product categories, it’s a handful of major marketplaces that command most of the transactions in this thriving market.
Tmall and Tmall Global
These marketplaces are both owned by Alibaba Group. Tmall is China’s largest domestic ecommerce platform, with over 780 million active users shopping a wide range of local and international brands. Selling on the TMall platform requires merchants to have a local Chinese entity (or partner with a solution that does) and to register products locally. Within Tmall sits Tmall Global, a specialized sub-platform that enables Chinese consumers to purchase from international brands through cross-border commerce. The trade-off, however, is that Tmall Global sellers must use Alibaba’s own logistics system and pay higher upfront deposits.
JD.com and JD Worldwide
Jingdong, internationally known as JD, is the second-largest ecommerce platform in China and Alibaba’s largest competitor. Operating in a similar fashion to Amazon elsewhere in the world, JD.com operates a high number of warehouses; boasts its own logistics network, JD Logistics; and sells everything from groceries to electronics. Foreign companies can also sell cross-border into China via the JD Worldwide marketplace.
Another Alibaba property, the Taobao platform is geared more toward medium- and lower-end goods than its somewhat luxury-minded counterpart, Tmall. Likewise, Taobao also offers a lower barrier to entry to Tmall, making it an ideal place for smaller ecommerce businesses to enter the Chinese market.
The Biggest Trends in Chinese Ecommerce
Along with changing behaviors and the fast-evolving makeup of the Chinese ecommerce audience, these innovative marketplaces are driving a variety of influential trends in the market. Below are some Chinese ecommerce trends that your business can’t afford to overlook.
As smartphone penetration continues to increase in China, consumers have been quick to adopt digital wallets, which now account for a majority of the ecommerce payment market share. The most popular digital wallet brands include those from Alibaba (Alipay) and tech giant Tencent’s WeChat Pay.
Social commerce has become crucial to ecommerce activity in China—a trend that has also begun to take hold in the US market. In 2022, 84% of Chinese consumers have shopped on social media platforms.
With about 750 million active users, Douyin (TikTok parent company ByteDance’s Chinese equivalent) is one of the country’s most popular apps and is becoming an increasingly important space for brands selling in China.
However, it’s China’s WeChat that has really revolutionized the idea of social commerce. Part messaging app, part social media network, part payment platform, and part ecommerce site, WeChat has been dubbed China’s “app for everything.” After launching tools to help merchants build their own virtual shops in 2020, the super app owned by Tencent has come to rival Alibaba and JD. WeChat Stores can be created either in connection with your own ecommerce site or using a native WeChat shop.
Of course, while consumer-centric social commerce can help brands reach more customers, it’s highly dependent on advertising spend and deprives brands of a certain degree of control over the sales experience. Likewise, if brands face negative feedback on social media, it can be difficult to remedy—and stop its spread.
The community group buying (CGB) model has been popularized with the initial help of ecommerce retailers like Pinduoduo—and now Alibaba Group and Meituan—which have enabled larger groups of shoppers to buy goods in bulk to unlock lower pricing. Some have compared it with the model offered by Groupon in the US. The CBG model truly took off during the pandemic, with members stocking up on groceries and daily essentials, reaching about $17 billion in 2021.
Foreign luxury goods
While there are a huge number of opportunities for brands selling into China, luxury goods from brands based abroad are especially popular among younger millennial and Gen-Z shoppers. Although the luxury goods market is expected to moderate somewhat over the years ahead, it will remain robust and full of opportunity for new sellers as more Gen-Z consumers enter the market.
China Cross-Border Ecommerce Opportunities
Businesses looking to sell into the Chinese cross-border ecommerce market are faced with two approaches, each with its own pros and cons: selling through one of the existing Chinese marketplaces or through your own store.
China’s prevailing ecommerce marketplaces each offer options for cross-border selling. Selling on these marketplaces can help your business reach its massive market of consumers—and without needing to obtain a business license. However, selling on these sites isn’t all upside—they typically come with steep upfront fees, and they require localized experiences and tailored marketing strategies to build awareness in a highly competitive space.
Creating a standalone marketplace requires similar attention to marketing strategy as well as having to navigate the learning curve of the Chinese marketplace. However, some businesses appreciate—and still succeed with—the significantly greater independence this approach affords.
Navigating the Chinese Ecommerce Market’s Expectations and Challenges
The Chinese ecommerce market offers enormous potential. But no matter which cross-border approach you choose for selling into China, you will need to adapt to local expectations and overcome the country’s unique challenges.
For one, you’ll potentially need to cater to the expectations that consumers have around social and mobile commerce capabilities. This includes not just localizing the shopping experience you offer but the payment experience, particularly when hosting your own ecommerce site for Chinese shoppers. Be sure that you’re equipped with an online payments platform that both supports preferred payment methods like Alipay and WeChat Pay and can deliver maximum authorization rates.
Additionally, when marketplaces like JD are improving on next-day and same-day delivery norms by offering lightning-quick, one-hour delivery times, you will need to partner with a logistics partner that can meet sky-high expectations around fulfillment. That doesn’t necessarily mean matching one-hour delivery times. But it does mean providing frictionless, transparent delivery experiences without any hidden or unexpected fees—all of which will likely require working with an experienced partner in the region with an established network.
Lastly, there’s simply no overlooking the significant role that government policies and regulations have in shaping the playing field in the Chinese ecommerce market. Overcoming hurdles to market entry and gaining an understanding of Chinese ecommerce laws requires a significant investment of time or the help of the right partner with a local footprint.
Seize Growth Opportunities in the Booming Chinese Ecommerce Market
Successfully entering the Chinese ecommerce market is no simple task. But the complexities of this market don’t need to overshadow its opportunities.
Working with the right partner—with expertise and solutions for everything from shipping and logistics to payments, tax, and compliance—can make all the difference, dramatically accelerating your ability to go to market and drive the kind of ecommerce growth you’re after.
Interested in learning more about how partnering with Digital River can simplify and supercharge your cross-border commerce expansion? Connect with us today.