In 2013, Chinese consumers’ online sales will surpass those of the United States. The pass is numerical and psychological; the Chinese population is in fact four times larger than America’s.
But the rapidity of the overtaking is significant: Bain observed an average increase of 71% over the past 3 years while Li&Fung detected even higher values. The growth rates are obviously destined to diminish, but the absolute value of the transition will not suffer contractions. Forecasts predict that by the end of 2016, “e-tail”—a synthesis of retail through electronic channels and the contraction of retail— will represent 10.6% of retail sales, compared to 6.2% in 2012. This dizzying rise went beyond predictions and derives from the largest internet-using population on earth (more than 600 million) and a vocation for consumption that has only in recent years reached values similar to those in industrialized societies as a result of improving disposable income. Online shopping has not penalized the traditional commercial fabric; ecommerce has certainly not supplanted it. Typical stores persist in Chinese cities, just as supermarkets and big distribution centers continue to progress. The great majority of online purchases occur through specialized and independent electronic platforms that work as intermediaries. The most famous company, a symbol of modern entrepreneurship in China, is Alibaba. Founded by the tycoon, Jack Ma, in Hangzhou in 1999, it was able to intercept the aspirations of nascent socioeconomic classes with the possibilities offered by the Internet and electronics. It’s not surprising that Alibaba is trying to attack the US market and has already anticipated plans to launch a Wall Street IPO. Alibaba’s affirmation confirms that retail sales—even from medium-sized producers—are still insufficient with respect to the market’s demands. This is the terrain in which the limits of Chinese marketing are found. Employees do not bask in the necessary combination between digital ownership and communication skills. Designing a website is different that designing a storefront window. Online catalogs are fragmented and full of images to accommodate the visitors’ desire to perceive a real catalog. Not everyone has the logistical capabilities of the intermediaries, and only a few have the means and abilities to build sophisticated platforms. The government has launched standards that encourage ecommerce in the hopes of stimulating internal consumption. But the immediate challenge will be substituting the supremacy of service with respect to price. Buyers are inundated with consumer goods at derisive prices, substituting them with excellent delivery, credit, and security will be another test of maturity to which the country is called.