You don’t need to use a Chinese e-commerce platform to reach a large audience in China, as long as you follow these steps, including setting up Chinese payment methods like Alipay and making sure you have the right customs clearances
Over the last few decades, the ways and means for British companies to tap into the billion customers of China has evolved rapidly. Originally, local partners would be found to distribute imported products. Then brands started opening physical stores in the country, and more recently, the arrival of myriad e-commerce online platforms have enabled British sellers to reach the vast Chinese market virtually.
However, some companies are now choosing to bypass these Chinese e-commerce platforms and sell directly to China from their global website.
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There are obviously a lot of benefits from selling via TMall, JD or one of China’s e-commerce sites. They have a huge reach, they can help with marketing and manage much of the logistics and payments issues that can be complex for those new to the China market. However, according to James Hebbert Managing Director of Hylink UK, they also require on-boarding fees and commissions in addition to other operational charges.
“Being on JD and TMall will still require a brand to invest on paid media within these platforms to have visibility for their brand,” says Hebbert. “Yes, there will naturally be more users browsing these platforms daily, but it will still require substantial efforts to ensure Chinese customers see and find your products.”
However, with the rise in popularity of social channels such as WeChat and Douyin (LINK THROUGH TO FEATURE 4) it is becoming easier for Chinese customers to discover British brands. Plus, says Hebbert, there is a “hunger on the side of Chinese consumers to discover more niche brands that appeal to their sense of individuality and self-expression. If a brand manages to localise their branding and products, and makes the consumer’s user journey simple and clear, then there is every chance they can successfully make inroads into the China market.”
According to Richard Unwin, managing director of Backbone IT Group, “selling direct from your own website is a low-risk way to test the market. “Your site is a known quantity for staff, both in terms of familiarity and operation, and creating a Chinese-language version is often straightforward,” explains Unwin. “It’s also worth noting that platforms like TMall have become very selective in recent years as to which brands they accept and the costs (both setup and ongoing) are significant.”
Unwin goes on to explain that although many e-commerce platforms in China are working hard to stamp out the sale of counterfeit products, authenticity of goods remains a significant issue. “If consumers can go direct it gives them confidence that they are getting a genuine product,” he says.
Selling directly from the brand’s own website will also be good for margins. “Opening e-commerce stores in China can often come with a hefty price tag and a large stock commitment,” says Sam Deacon of Samarkand. “When selling direct from your website, there is very little initial investment and orders can be fulfilled from your current stock holding. The expectation for delivery times is a lot slower when a Chinese consumer is buying from an international website,” he says, but “in many categories, the desire for guaranteed authentic products outweighs the longer shipping times.”
“For companies also worried about their brand identity, selling direct means they can offer a fully branded experience, maintaining control of the brand’s image, with whom they are associated, and how, for example, promotions are offered and partnerships considered. A brand has complete control over product presentation, pricing and range selection,” says Deacon. “In addition to this, because the relationship exists directly between the brand and the consumer rather than through a third party, the brand has access to a wealth of data. This provides a much greater understanding of your Chinese consumer, ideal for long term growth.”
For companies aiming to sell directly into China from their own site, the most important thing says Hebbert, is that the brand has lots of regular traffic to the site and that the user experience is seamless. This should include:
Localised payment offerings
Integrating Chinese payment gateways to enable Chinese customers to pay quickly and easily is essential. “We’ve previously helped a launch British brand in China, who insisted on using their existing payment partner who had claimed they could support with the Chinese payment methods,” says Hebbert. “On the day of the campaign, we leveraged several KOLs and content on social to drive traffic to their website. The traffic saw such a spike that it crashed their payment service and many transactions couldn’t go through. Despite the hiccup, the client reported seeing an increase of over 70% traffic from China to their site and significantly increased their sales.
“Payment pages should offer popular Chinese payment methods prominently. Global payment systems from providers such as Alipay are relatively easy to integrate into common e-commerce software,” says Unwin.
Localise language and messaging and tone of voice
Having a simplified Chinese language option for the site is essential. Keep the language clear and ensure that the messaging and tone of voice is suitable for the Chinese audience. Don’t just literally translate your English language site but re-write it to target the new client base. Get an agency or a local team in China to check through all of your content and don’t make faux pas that could offend a Chinese audience.
“A Chinese-language website is a must and some localisation of content of the website is helpful, rather than translating page for page,” says Unwin of Backbone.
Translating your whole website can be expensive, however, and for brands with limited traffic and sales can be overkill. Starting with some of the most important information – brand story, delivery information, and guides on product sizing and care are often the best places to start for those on a limited budget, according to Jack Porteous, Head of Retail and e-Commerce for CBBC.
Don’t get blocked
Hosting with a Content Delivery Network (CDN) that uses global proxy serves to manage access to China’s internet will speed up load times and stop the site being blocked. Alternatively host the site within China to ensure a faster, smoother experience for Chinese customers. But be aware, with a Chinese site comes various other challenges and most companies would need an Internet Content Provider (ICP) license to have a sales website in the Mainland.
“Companies usually employ UK developers to design their English-language site and a lot of programming methods which are desirable in the West cause slow performance in China,” says Unwin. “This is either due to content being blocked or because Chinese users need to load large files from Western-based servers. Using Google fonts or linking out to YouTube videos would be common culprits. Stripping down the number of files required to make up a page and hosting them locally is usually the best course of action. Many companies are advised that hosting in China is the solution to a fast-performing website. This does help if the site is already optimised for China delivery. However, it’s totally possible to get a website to perform quickly when hosted outside China if it has been coded with China in mind.”
Custom clearance and licenses
Ensure your products can get into China without being turned back at the border. Find out from CBBC’s sector managers if you need certain licenses, permits and custom clearance documents to ship into China. Foodstuffs, cosmetics and luxury products are just some products that have sometimes strict licensing rules so do your homework.
“Following the introduction of China’s first eCommerce law in January 2019, it is a legal requirement that you use a Chinese government approved logistics provider with a license to send cross border,” says Deacon. “Most large international logistics firms do not have this license, so you need to work with a China specialist”
Delivering a product to a Chinese consumer is complicated. There are many logistic routes into China and brands will hear acronyms like CC, BC and BBC. Each of these has its own requirements, tax rates and legal implications. The customs regulations can even differ dramatically from province to province. Navigating these regulations is the biggest complexity, but international brands must find a tax compliant way of selling to China. This is true for brands already selling into the market as well as new entrants,” explains Deacon.
One company that has plenty of experience of this is Royal Mail. “Royal Mail offers different services to suit different retailers’ needs depending on the category of goods they sell and the entry model which suits the best,” says Kitty Wang, Asia Ecommerce Manager for Royal Mail. “Royal Mail offers different shipping solutions and this means we can offer different level of IT integration to suit different sized retailers’ needs. We also work with local authorities and delivery partners to ensure the process is streamlined.”
Good SEO and Socials
Like any website nowadays, without good Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) it is hard to drive traffic to your website and climb the rankings on search engines. Also, make sure to link up all the social channels you may have to maximise the cross over potential between your site and your socials. Remember that most Western social media channels don’t work in China so make sure all promo videos are on Youku as well as Youtube. Driving traffic to your site is the number one priority to get sales so a lot of thought (and a decent marketing budget) needs to be put into this. “Driving traffic to your website can be done through investing in PR or marketing in China, however a lot of brands will find that they already have traffic from Chinese consumers – especially in luxury,” says Deacon.
Know your returns policy
The cost of shipping returns back and forth between China and the UK can mount up so ensure the customer knows clearly what they are getting in advance and what your returns policies are. Clothing products that have a variety of sizes or gadgets that might break easily might come across more returns problems than, for example, items of jewellery that are standard in size.
Jewellery company Deakin & Francis is one company that has got it right. “James Deakin, our head of design has travelled far and wide and visited China many times,” explains Annmarie Hanlon of the firm.
“The greatest challenge with China is the language barrier. We’re more familiar with French, German and Italian and so our concern was managing enquiries,” Hanlon continues. “We experimented with TMall via a third party, but it didn’t work for us as we’re at the luxury end of the market and this seems to suit more commoditised items. We also worked with an agency that established our social media pages, but we wanted to be more agile and so recruited a Chinese-speaking member of staff. We also looked at WeChat mini programmes but would need to see a greater return before making further investment. Plus, this would be another website to manage.”
“We have attended several CBBC events and workshops which have been incredibly insightful. In particular, Jack Porteous and his team have provided excellent advice. Based on this and as we have so many products, we took a view it would be easier to have one website rather than multiple sites.”
The clothing brand Johnston’s of Elgin has also successfully set up their website for a Chinese customer base with great success.
“Over the past few years we have worked directly with a small number of Chinese e-commerce platforms, but only a limited capsule of products have been made available via these channels,” says Greg Rorison, the company’s Sales Director for China. “Our own e-commerce site is the only place consumers can shop the full breadth of our collections outside of our stores in the UK. We have therefore worked closely with specific Chinese KOLs so they can share our story with their audiences and entice their followers to our website to view the large range of cashmere and fine-woollen products we make in Scotland. Like any new market, there are still challenges to overcome, but I am encouraged by the steady increase in traffic to our site from consumers based in China and the improved service we are offering them in terms of payment options and delivery.”