Home Consumer How Chinese women really shop: 4 case studies

How Chinese women really shop: 4 case studies

FOCUS sat down with four Chinese women to ask them what they buy online, which platform they use, who influences their decisions, and why.

by Sarah Keenlyside
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how chinese women shop online

These days Chinese consumers can browse, buy and watch product live streams on all manner of platforms, from Douyin to Taobao to Xiaohongshu – here, in their own words, is how they choose between them

According to Statista, almost 60% of China’s online live commerce shoppers are female, and they make up around 51% of Chinese e-commerce users in general. But with so much noise, and so many choices, what influences the platform they decide to shop on, and how can their habits inform your China strategy?

We asked four women what their typical buying journey looks like: Jenny Jing, a 38-year-old production manager and mother of two living in Beijing; Cecilia Wu, a 38-year-old editor living in Kunming; Fiona Yang, a 34-year-old teacher living in Beijing; and Cicely Shang, a 34-year-old working in tech and living in Shanghai.

launchpad CBBC

What were the last products you bought for yourself online?

Jenny Jing: Skincare products from a Canadian brand called Cocoon.

Cecilia Wu: Two pairs of Birkenstock sandals

Fiona Yang: Bleaching agent (for clothes). I accidentally died my favourite jacket blue and wanted to get it back to white again. It worked! Made my jacket good as new.

Cicely Shang: Cosmetics, coffee capsules and catnip

Which platform did you use to make your purchase and why?

Jenny: Xiaohongshu this time. But I often use Taobao. I follow a skincare professional on Xiaohongshu who has her own clinic, so she is able to share industry knowledge, insider tips and secrets. Taobao used to be my first choice for this kind of thing, but now I only go there for Li Jiaqi.

Cecilia: Douyin. Normally I use Taobao because they have almost everything, but for these Birkenstocks, the brand’s official Douyin store offered a discount, so I went with that.

Fiona: Taobao. I always use Taobao because it puts the customer’s needs first. If you have a dispute or an issue arises between you and the seller, you feel confident that if something goes wrong, they will fix it. In general, you have more options with Taobao than JD.com and the quality is almost the same.

Cicely: The Harmay mini programme, then Tmall. Harmay [a retail chain selling beauty brand samples with a market value above US$76.4 million] carries so many niche brands and the prices are below market rate.

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If an influencer persuaded you to buy this product, tell us more about them. Which influencers do you like and trust, and why? 

Jenny: Yes, there are loads of small influencers on Xiaohongshu who influence me, I’d say. The main one is called Haha Chen. We have a similar body size, she lives in Beijing like me, has a daughter like me. She’s aged around 34. The fact that we are similar means I can trust that I won’t be going too wrong if I follow her lead.

Cecilia: No influencer persuaded me to buy the Birkenstocks.

Fiona Yang: I wasn’t influenced by a streamer this time. I don’t even have Douyin downloaded now because it’s too addictive.  

Cicely: This time, I was watching 钳钳妈阿曼达 (‘Qian Qian’s Mom Amanda’) on Xiaohongshu. I think she’s just over 30 years old and I’ve been following her for more than three years now. Her style/aesthetic is similar to mine, and the items she recommends are always really practical and it’s clear she uses them herself.

What convinced you to buy this product when it came down to it?

Jenny: Nothing really, I just wanted to try something different, and you can return the product within seven days so it was a pretty low-risk purchase.

Cecilia: In this case, the time-limited discount!

Fiona: It was the best price I could find. If I didn’t get this deal, I knew I would regret it. In general, these time-limited deals definitely make me more impulsive. If a site or a person says ‘take advantage of this deal or you’ll miss out’ I usually just pull the trigger.

Cicely: The product seemed to perform well according to the influencer, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Did you get a special discount on this item?

Jenny: Yes, the influencer gave a discount price on the items I bought.

Cecilia: Yes, because I bought on Douyin, the price was RMB 100 (£11) lower than the store.

Fiona: Yes, that’s the major reason why people like me prefer to buy online these days instead of at a shopping mall.

Cicely: No discount this time.

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Did you buy the product directly in the app or did you see it in one app, then go and buy it in a different one?

Jenny:  Yes, I bought the items directly from Xiaohongshu because the discounted price can only be claimed during the influencer’s live stream. But sometimes, before I decide to buy it in Xiaohongshu, I quickly go to Taobao, search the same item and check people’s reviews and comments there too.

Cecilia: Yes, I bought the shoes directly from the Douyin app, because it’s cheaper and the delivery is fast.

Fiona: I don’t shop around. It’s too time-consuming. That’s why I really just use Taobao. It gives me a headache doing lengthy comparisons. I prefer to have options because I want to see different styles and prices, but overall I prefer just to buy from a platform I trust and know than shop around for the cheapest products.

What I like about the way Taobao functions is that once you see a product you like and click ‘Like’, when you go back to the previous page, Taobao automatically shows you options for the same product (so you don’t need to search again) and makes it super easy to do your own price comparison. It takes so little effort. Then you can just focus on the reviews rather than the price.

Cicely: I saw the recommendation on Xiaohongshu and then went to Harmay and then finally to Tmall to make the purchase.

How often do you buy imported/foreign brand products on these platforms? 

Jenny: I never buy foreign brand clothing, but I do buy many international brand products for the children as well as skincare products. I buy foreign brand skincare and make-up every two or three months on Taobao and kids’ stuff every one or two weeks, such as baby formula, Vitamin D or A and nappies.

Cecilia: I’d say I buy foreign brand beauty products like La Roche-Posay and Lancôme once every one to two months.

Fiona: I buy imported brands from Taobao (Tmall) since it was one of the earliest platforms to stock foreign brands, and the prices are always similar to duty-free shops at the airport. I also think Tmall has stronger relationships with overseas brands and better quality control. I know it’s the real thing. Mostly I buy cosmetics like Lancôme or Dior or Cote perfume. Sometimes I buy little things from Coach or sports brands like Puma or Nike. If they have something that domestic stores don’t, that’s when I buy them from Tmall because I’m getting something I couldn’t otherwise.

Cicely: I’d say I buy foreign brand products once every quarter – mostly Lululemon and Nespresso!

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What influences your decision to buy those foreign brands, and which country’s brands do you trust the most?

Jenny: For me, it’s about quality and safety. In general, I trust Japanese and German brands the most because I know they are serious about quality control. Also, there is a British clothing brand called Next that I like a lot! The designs are really cute, it’s good quality and the price is good too. Unfortunately, it only had an online shop in Taobao for a while, and then it closed, so now there are no online or offline shops in mainland China for it, but it is available in Hong Kong, I think.

Cecilia: The quality and safety aspect, for sure. I feel products from the UK, Europe and the US are especially good.

Fiona: I just buy things based on my personal taste. I seldom try new things. I’m quite a loyal customer. If I like a brand, I use it for years, like Lancôme, for example. Most of the brands I like are from the US, and in general, I think that’s because I see them as mid-range luxury. They’re more affordable than high-end European brands.

Cicely:  I like Lululemon because I know it’s a durable product. And Nespresso holds up for daily consumption too.

Which is your favourite e-commerce platform and why?

Jenny: It’s hard to say. I use Xiaohongshu mostly for myself, JD.com mostly for the children and Taobao for daigou or stuff I can’t buy on JD mall.

Cecilia: Taobao because of the sheer selection, and JD.com for same-day or next-day delivery.

Fiona: Taobao.

Cicely: Tmall for brand assurance, fast logistics, and convenient returns and exchanges.

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Are there any platforms that you never use? And if so, why not? 

Jenny: Amazon. I don’t see the reason why I need it. Many years ago, the page looked messy, and the payment method wasn’t China-friendly, but I haven’t used it for years, so maybe they’ve made some changes [Amazon shut down its domestic operations in 2019].

Cecilia: I don’t use Xiaohongshu. I feel like the content is more about showing off, whereas people on Douyin are just having fun.

Fiona: Pinduoduo. It’s like Taobao but with a much lower price, sometimes even below RMB 10, but the quality can’t be guaranteed, so I don’t like it. I also get annoyed by their model. You can make things cheaper by getting bonus discounts for sharing deals with your friends. In other words, you have to ask your friends to help click on the link Pinduoduo sends you to get the price down, usually by just RMB 1 or 2.

But so many friends send you these links. Ok, it’s an easy favour to do for people, but it’s so annoying! Go there and click, go there and click. I didn’t want this app on my phone, but I felt obliged to download it to help my friends get cheaper deals. Since then, I deleted the app. Now when friends ask me to open their links to get them discounts, I just say, “sorry, it’s not worth it for RMB 1!”

China Consumer 2023

This article was produced as part of a series for China Consumer 2023.

Learn more about CBBC’s flagship consumer event of 2023 here.

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