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How to adapt your business for China’s e-commerce market

by Robynne Tindall
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China represents a huge opportunity for small businesses, but it can be challenging to stand out in such a crowded online marketplace. One brand’s successful partnership with Alibaba’s Tmall Global offers lessons for other companies on how to adapt your business for China’s e-commerce market

When British electrotherapy device maker TensCare joined Tmall Global in 2018, they were well aware of the potential boost success in China could give to their business. Founded in 1994, TensCare is one of Europe’s largest manufacturers and distributors of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machines, a method of drug-free pain relief that uses mild electric currents to reduce pain signals. Another major area for TensCare, and one in which they have extensive expertise, is pelvic floor exercisers for continence management. In recent years, the company has branched out into aesthetic devices, for example, using light therapy to improve the appearance of acne.

Just four years on from their Tmall Global launch, China represents over 30% of TensCare’s business. Managing director Neil Wright spoke to FOCUS about TensCare’s rapid growth and how other SMEs should approach their China e-commerce strategy.

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Get on the ground in China

As soon as TensCare made the conscious decision to enter the China market, they hired a native Mandarin speaker on the ground in China so they could start building a relationship with their trade partner and make sure that nothing was “lost in translation,” as Neil summarises. As a result, that strong partnership gave them access to actionable insights and market research that they used to tailor their product offering in China. Since they launched on Tmall Global, they have now opened an office in Shenzhen and employed a regional sales manager too.

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Identify your strengths but remain flexible

TensCare is best known in the UK for pain management and postpartum recovery devices. They know their customer and their customer knows them. TensCare has a “… heritage of talking to mums and talking to mums at an important time of their life,” Neil says. Their previous market research found that 100% of mums who used their post-partum products remember the product and where they had bought it. 

In China, although their target customer is the same, their product offering is different. On the basis of Tmall Global’s consumer analytics, which showed that new mums in China were concerned about recovering their appearance after giving birth, they switched the spotlight to aesthetic-focused devices, a product category they had only recently introduced in the UK market. Their best-selling product in China is now the Beauty Max, an electro-muscle stimulation device for the face that reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. “The beauty side of our business was very much a niche product that has become one of our best-selling products.”

Neil’s number one piece of advice is to remain adaptable. That does not necessarily mean creating new products for the China market, but rather finding ways to adapt existing products and strategies based on local insights

TensCare’s Beauty Max on sale on Tmall Global during the 618 shopping festival in mid-June

Showcase your expertise

Smaller companies can be intimidated by the sheer scope of the Chinese market, but as Neil points out, a lack of awareness of foreign brand names means that “even the big players are small players.” Size is less relevant than brand heritage and expertise, and TensCare’s 25-year history and extensive research into how and why people use their products has been a boon in that regard.

To make sure that Chinese consumers understand the brand’s products and technology, TensCare works closely with influencers in the maternity and health and beauty sectors, as well as Alibaba’s live streaming tools and other social media to create engaging, educational content. Neil points to their relationship with their local partner being helpful in this area as well, especially when it came to translating the tricky technical — and often highly personal — functions of products such as the pelvic floor exerciser.

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As many companies will no doubt already be aware, it pays to stay plugged into new trends in the e-commerce market, as well as the shopping festival calendar, such as Single’s Day or 11.11. “That’s when we look to key product launches or major promotional activities,” Neil says. During the Single’s Day shopping festival, the company introduced gift packaging, as shifting to the aesthetic device market allowed them space for giftable elements. However, normalising the conversation around their pelvic floor devices via live streams and KOL-led videos has also meant they have been able to create gift packaging and gift sets around those products. 

Adapt, adapt, adapt

Neil’s number one piece of advice for UK consumer goods makers looking to try e-commerce in China is to remain adaptable. That does not necessarily mean creating new products for the China market, but rather finding ways to adapt existing products and strategies based on local insights. “Give it [the China market] a go, be adaptable, and be ready to scale up.”

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