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China set to become world’s largest ecommerce market in 2015

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China could overtake the US to become biggest ecommerce market in the world in the next four years, a new study suggests.

Already the country has 145m online shoppers, making it an ecommerce market second only to the US, with its 170m shoppers, says the study, The World’s Next E-Commerce Superpower: Navigating China’s Unique Online-Shopping Ecosystem, from Boston Consulting Group. But expected exponential growth could see the Chinese market more than double to 329m by 2015.

“Consumerism is already big in China – people simply love to shop,” said the report’s Hong Kong-based co-author Waldemar Jap, a partner at BCG. “But China is unusual in that Internet access has far outpaced the reach of the top physical retailers, which means that e-commerce development probably will not mirror the pattern in other countries.”

That makes it a very distinct market that retailers who want to sell in must work to understand, said Jap. The report, which included a survey of 4,000 Chinese consumers, says that while less than 10% of China’s urban population shopped online in 2005, that figure had risen to 23% in 2010. It predicts 44% will be buying over the internet by 2015, with 30m extra Chinese consumers joining them every year until then.

Today ecommerce accounts for 3.3% of the country’s total retail sales but that, says the BCG report, will grow to 7.4% by 2015. By then, it predicts, those shoppers already buying online will be spending around $980 (£634) a year, twice what they spend now and rivaling the US average spend of $1,000 (£647) a year. Chinese delivery costs are also cheaper, at $1 to send a parcel weighing 1kg, compared to $6 in the US.

Online shopping is also different in China, says the BCG report, because the internet gives up to a quarter of consumers access to products they simply cannot find in the shops. For many, especially younger buyers, the internet is where they make their first contact with a brand or type of product.

In 2010, says the report, some 80% of Chinese online sales took place on, which sells 48,000 products a minute of the 800m products it has for sale. Because it is not open to searches on China’s leading search engine,, says the report, most people start searching within Taobao rather than through a search engine.

Payments and delivery are also approached very differently. Since credit card use is not widespread, many payments are put into escrow with Taobao’s subsidiary Alipay until the item is received. And it seems logistics is a major issue for buyers, with 45% concerned their items will be swapped for fakes during the delivery process.

Chinese shoppers have a strong emotional attachment to shopping and to buying online, says report co-author Hubert Hsu. While they look for discounts they also look for quality, unique products they can only find online, and strong customer service. So-called ‘superheavy’ shoppers have been spending online for more than four years and are 70% from the middle and affluent classes.

Hsu, senior partner at BCG in Hong Kong and co-author of the report, said: “Fulfilling the emotional needs of China’s super-heavy spenders will be key to future success in China’s e-commerce landscape.

“Given the strong emotional ties consumers in China have with shopping, it will be critical to engage them with value propositions beyond mere price savings—for example, by creating a fun shopping experience or by appealing to trend-conscious consumers’ sense of discovery by making them feel they are learning something new in the shopping process.”

A copy of the report can be downloaded at

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