Think of Hong Kong, and along with the bright lights and world-class cuisine, most people think of exciting shopping possibilities coupled with the latest in technology. Put these together and you might expect that traffic in online shopping would be giving its bricks-and-mortar counterparts a run for their money.
But this is not the case. In fact, interest in internet shopping in Hong Kong has been slow to evolve, say online companies. Still, a combination of technological advances, strategic marketing and increased consumer confidence may be about to change all of this.
Hong Kong's reluctance to embrace online shopping is partly due to the myriad shopping opportunities that exist on a physical level. Massive, multi-storey shopping malls have become a feature of the landscape, many of them linked to bus or train lines for added convenience, and offering enough shops, restaurants and entertainment options to make a full-day visit to the mall a viable option for the entire family.
Online shopping offers none of this, though it does offer the comforts of shopping from home, the office or even from a mobile phone. Added to this is the enticement of half-price bargains, meaning that shopping malls may be in for some stiff competition after all.
Group buying site Groupon was one of the first online-only businesses to test Hong Kong people's aversion to internet shopping, recalls Danny Yeung, CEO of Groupon Hong Kong.
'This was one of the initial challenges that I faced when I started the company. People said to me, 'Hey, Danny, nobody shops online in Hong Kong due to the convenience factor.' [They noted that] people liked to touch and feel or visit a shop before they buy something,' he says.
But there are signs that tradition is beginning to change. 'In general, online marketing has not taken off as fast as it has in other developed countries, but I have seen that online marketing has grown very rapidly in the past year in Hong Kong,' says Yeung.
Online payment service company PayPal expects that online shopping in Hong Kong will be worth US$2.5 billion (about HK$19.4 billion) by 2015, and says that the trend is already underway.
'[The year] 2011 [witnessed] momentous growth for e-commerce in Hong Kong, with the increasing popularity of online shopping, group-buying bargain sites, as well as the beginning of a convergence between online and offline e-commerce in the form of mobile payments,' says Kerry Wong, general manager of PayPal Hong Kong and Taiwan.
She says that shopping via mobile devices is 'skyrocketing' in line with the increased popularity of smartphones. 'Nearly seven out of 10 Hong Kong people said that using their mobile devices is faster and more convenient because they can make a transaction 'anytime, anywhere',' she says.
Groupon, with other online group-buying companies, has staked its future on its ability to build a successful business using only online methods. It sends out mass e-mails daily, offering discounts to all buyers - on various products and services - once a pre-set number of customers has signed up for the deal.
Discounts of 50 to 90 per cent help to convert customers from indifference to online purchasing. Another impediment has been the perception that online payment isn't safe. Groupon refutes this by offering customers a full refund if they are not satisfied with their purchase.
Given the new developments in technology, the prospects within online marketing are brightening and jobs are being created which offer challenging opportunities.
But finding employees who can generate a daily buzz is a challenge. 'I try to look for very entrepreneurial people - people who are not just looking for a job but, rather, a challenge,' says Yeung.
'Our staff are much younger than those of your average employer in Hong Kong, and I'm looking for people who are willing to challenge themselves.'
Yeung believes that other companies that move online are certain to see benefits to their bottom line.
'I think that, in general, any business that has e-commerce tied to it - and certainly the ones that have international presence and backing - will be much stronger than local players,' says Yeung.
'The confidence factor is very important in establishing credibility to the consumer because it's still a fairly new thing in Hong Kong,' he adds.