Home to a quarter of the earth’s population and an economy chasing down the United States, China is fertile ground for companies doing business online. It’s easy to see the allure: The scope and potential of the market is massive.
The numbers tell the story. China’s leading e-commerce company, Alibaba, showed record one-day sales revenue of $5.75 billion on a Chinese shopping holiday. Compare that to the U.S., where visits to more than 1,000 e-commerce sites drove just $1.5 billion in revenue on Cyber Monday. There are already twice as many Internet users in China as there are people in the United States, and they are increasingly ready to buy – as demonstrated by China officially passing the U.S. in e-commerce sales – thanks to a 41 percent growth rate in just one year.
But Internet-based Western retailers operating in China must undergo serious transformations to accommodate for differences in the Chinese market. And it’s not just the major language, cultural, and infrastructure challenges – some of the hidden risks of doing business in China lie on the technical side of e-commerce.
For starters, the Internet in China is slow and expensive, and Great Firewall filtering means non-Chinese sites are even slower than mainland-based sites. On top of that, 38 percent of China’s Internet users only access the Internet on a mobile device, which means Western businesses without a consistent approach to mobile will have a hard time winning these customers. And then there’s the “3G” problem: While many U.S. developers create sites for a modern mobile device with a 4G or Wi-Fi connection, the vast majority of Chinese users are on a 3G (or worse) connection and have feature phones instead of smartphones.
What do these challenges mean for e-commerce businesses? They have to adjust both how they operate their infrastructure and how they present information in order to navigate the unique obstacles that come with entering the Chinese market.
E-commerce optimization solutions for doing business in China
A wholesale China-specific approach is needed for e-commerce brands that want to optimize their websites for Chinese consumers. Because speed and performance play such an important role in driving conversion rates, not having an intentional plan in place to overcome the technical roadblocks can result in lost sales and a failed expansion into this growing market.
Here are four solutions to the above problems that will increase a brand’s chances of success in China.
Content Delivery Networks: This is a major piece of the strategy for web businesses entering far-flung markets – China included. If your site needs to be filtered by the firewall and then delivered by slow ISPs, the least you can do is put content close to the user. But the leading western CDNs are not necessarily best in China. In fact, Akamai and Amazon CloudFront register median delivery times far slower than local options like ChinaNetCenter and ChinaCache. A change to a lesser-known and foreign provider comes with risks and overhead associated with integration, but it may be necessary for the long term.
App Sequencing: Going beyond CDNs, newer technology like app sequencing that changes the order and cadence of page rendering carries even greater importance in places like China. Third-party assets, such as social media widgets, are risky for performance, especially where firewalls are involved. If you host content from a blocked site, your entire page request could fail. And slow Internet doesn’t play well with heavy content like large, high-resolution images that litter web pages today. Sequencing helps to get some content in front of the user faster and makes sure that the heavier content does not hold back simpler content from coming in first.
Adaptive Mobile Content: Popular wisdom holds that you should never skimp on the information on your mobile site – anything found on your desktop site should likewise be found on mobile. But with the low-power mobile profiles seen in China, it may be necessary to take measures just to ensure that the user is able to get some experience rather than nothing at all. That may mean adapting content to mobile users if the desktop site is currently loaded with thousands of kilobytes of content. One easily understood method is making images responsive. Not to be confused with responsive design, making images responsive is a technique that sends images on-demand as they pull into the viewport, rather than sending them all at once. This prevents wasteful loading of images that never get seen because the user doesn’t scroll down – and at the same time enables the “above the fold” elements to finish loading significantly faster.
User Experience Measurement: Performance testing for these scenarios is going to drive decision-making. Using real-browser tests conducted with a 2G or 3G connection will tell you a lot more about how your mobile experience will be than working off RUM data from users in western regions. It’s an entirely different model of delivery and consumption, one where expectations are low but the potential for differentiation is extremely high.
China holds great potential for e-commerce businesses looking to open up to a broader customer base. But before jumping into the new market, retailers must keep in mind the importance of a smart, engaging user experience tailored to accommodate the Chinese-specific tech and infrastructure challenges.
Coach Wei is the CEO of Boston-based Yottaa, a cloud-based acceleration platform that drives user engagement to increase business impact across online and mobile channels.
VB’s research team is studying mobile user acquisition: Chime in here, and we’ll share the results.