China’s e-commerce giants are reaching for the wallets of overseas Chinese
E-commerce giants Alibaba and JD.com expand global shipping options to target overseas Chinese as online consumer spending at home slows
When Dongguan native Joanne Fang wanted to buy a dish steriliser for her home in Brisbane, Australia earlier this year, she quickly found that many of the country’s retailers did not carry the cupboard-like appliance that is common in China.
For the uninitiated, the dish steriliser is a Chinese invention about the size of a small fridge, equipped with dish racks and heating elements to eliminate germs or nasty odours. In a country racked by hygiene scandals, dish sterilisers soon gained popularity and are now common in Chinese restaurants and homes.
After contacting several stores in Brisbane to no avail, Fang turned to Chinese e-commerce platform Tmall, where she was able to purchase the dish steriliser and have it shipped directly to her home from China. A search on Amazon.com found that no such products were listed.
“The lifestyle habits in Australia are very different from China,” said Fang, who has been living in Australia since 2011 and works as an accountant. “An appliance like a dish steriliser can only be bought in China – there is no market for something like this here.”
For China’s leading e-commerce companies like Alibaba Group and JD.com, overseas Chinese like Fang represent an increasingly lucrative consumer segment, especially as online consumer spending growth at home is expected to slow as e-commerce penetration plateaus in major cities. However, in lower-tier Chinese cities, online platforms such as Pinduoduo have seen phenomenal growth by selling cheaper products to users with lower spending power.
Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.
Since 2015, Alibaba and JD.com have expanded their global shipping options, and currently allow Chinese consumers based in countries like Australia, US, and regions like Southeast Asia and Greater China to buy directly from their e-commerce platforms. While Alibaba’s international Tmall and Taobao platforms are still only available in Chinese, JD.com’s international e-commerce platforms in countries like Russia and Indonesia are customised to the local language. JD.com also operates an affiliate e-commerce platform called Joybuy that allows users to browse in English and a variety of other languages, similar to Alibaba's AliExpress platform.
By offering shipping to countries outside China, the e-commerce sites are giving Chinese brands an opportunity to expand internationally. Foshan-based furniture maker Linshimuye and domestic electronics brand Joyoung are just two well known Chinese brands using e-commerce platforms like Tmall to expand to other countries.
One of the barriers facing Chinese brands going global is a perception that the “Made in China” label means inferior products, according to Shaun Rein, the managing director of China Market Research Group and author of The War for China’s Wallet.
“The reality is that in many categories Chinese brands are as good or even better than multinational companies,” he said, adding that the global strategy for most local brands is to piggyback on sales channels from Alibaba and JD.com to reach end consumers outside China.
Australia, in particular, represents a lucrative opportunity for these companies. With a Chinese diaspora of over 1.2 million – 15 per cent of which are Chinese students studying overseas – Australia has the highest proportion of overseas Chinese per capita outside Asia.
Earlier this year, Alibaba launched sea freight as a shipping method to Australia, allowing Chinese consumers in the country to purchase larger items such as furniture from Chinese brands and ship them to the southern hemisphere at much more affordable prices.
Markets like Australia, as well as Southeast Asia with its 600 million consumers, have become even more important to e-commerce companies like Alibaba given current US-China trade tensions.
“We are focused on Chinese consumers [in Australia] … these consumers are familiar with us. Many of them have emigrated to Australia, but even though they are living in another land they still lead a Chinese lifestyle,” said Alibaba chief executive Daniel Zhang Yong in a recent interview in Sydney.
Zhang pointed out that the global overseas Chinese population has surpassed 100 million, and that their spending power cannot be underestimated.
As part of its promotional efforts, Alibaba opened two Tmall Home pop-up stores for six days last month in the cities of Melbourne and Sydney to raise awareness of its new sea freight options. Fashioned after a home, the stores were outfitted with furniture and products from Chinese brands.
Each product had a QR code tag linked to the corresponding listings on Tmall, encouraging shoppers to purchase online.
“Chinese consumers sometimes require different products than what is available to them in the countries they now reside in, because of their Chinese way of life. When it comes to the Australian market, we first have to find out what kind of products Chinese consumers require, but cannot find here,” Zhang said.
For Chinese kitchen appliances brand Joyoung, reaching overseas via Tmall was the first step in its international expansion, said Ye Yong, the company’s general manager for e-commerce.
“As a Chinese brand we have a better understanding of Chinese consumers. We offer products that are closely tied to their lifestyle, like soy milk makers, noodle makers and even our automated stir-fry pots,” Ye said.
“Just as Chinese consumers have adopted some Western practices such as coffee drinking, we hope that eventually foreigners will also appreciate Chinese products such as [Chinese-style] soy milk.”
Marketplaces like Tmall don’t just help facilitate Chinese brands to sell overseas. As consumers become more affluent in China itself, there has been an increase in demand for products sourced from overseas.
China is shifting from a manufacturing and export-led economy to a consumption-driven one, Joseph Tsai, Alibaba vice chairman, said in an interview with CNBC on Monday.
“There are now 300 million Chinese consumers that are demanding and desiring to buy from all over the world, so there’s a great opportunity … to sell to China,” he said.
Australian brands remain one of the most popular among Chinese consumers. During last year’s Tmall Singles’ Day shopping festival, the country’s products ranked third behind US and Japanese in terms of sales, with the most popular being health care supplements from Swisse and Blackmores, as well as mother and baby products from Bioisland and Bellamy’s Organic.
“It’s a huge event, and the ability to attract that many interactions on a platform in one day is simply astonishing,” said Oliver Horn, global managing director of Swisse. “The world is becoming a smaller place, culturally moving closer together with consumers interacting beyond borders.”
Additional reporting by Iris Deng