Most parents will buy rattles and dolls for their children from a very young age up until the child hits his/her mid-teens – with just the types of toys purchased changing as the child grows older.

The potential of the global toys & games industry is heavily influenced by demographic trends such as the number of households and birth rate. There’s also a seasonal variation in the types of toys & games currently popular around the world; depending on blockbuster action flicks, emerging WWE stars, and fashion trends.

Thailand’s demographics in particular hint at a widening market for the toys & games industry. The natural birth rate in 2017 was about 240,000 – this refers to the number of births in a year subtracted from the number of deaths – representing a population growth rate of about 0.4%.

Population growth rates peaked in the 1970s at about 3% but aggressive public awareness campaigns by Thai authorities have brought this figure down substantially.

At the same time, annual household income more than doubled from $1,089 in 1999 to $3,276 in 2015. Thai families might not be growing as quickly as before but they definitely have more to spend.

Source: Ceicdata

Higher disposable income also means the sale of toys & games isn’t restricted to children only. Older consumers are forecasted to impact sales too, especially in categories like action figures and accessories.

According to Euromonitor, the value of Thailand’s toys & games industry was estimated to be worth US$376 million in terms of sales volume in 2015. The same report forecasts sales to increase to US$541 million by 2020, or by an average of 9% a year.

That’s a sizeable chunk that brands like Hasbro and Mattel should be eyeing carefully, especially as internet retail is predicted to grab a larger piece of the pie in the coming years, making it critical to double down on mobile/web acquisition channels.

Where do Thai consumers buy toys?

ecommerceIQ initiated a survey to understand online consumer purchase habits for toys & games in Thailand. There were over 300 participants spread across the country.

What was interesting to find was the availability of offline retail wasn’t a bottleneck to transacting online. Only 2.9% of respondents said they ignore online channels because of malls or shopping centers.

The largest inhibiting factor for online purchases is the prevalent lack of trust.

Thai people feel either the pictures online are either heavily photoshopped or they’re usually disappointed when receiving the product after purchasing.

Top reasons why customers don’t shop online for toys in Thailand. Source: ecommerceIQ

But not all is lost. Survey respondents in the 18-24 & 25-34 age category were, on average, 43% likely to indulge in online purchases for toys and games. Those were the two youngest tiers surveyed and it is likely as they grow older they’ll carry these preferences with them.

If online channels optimize the overall buying experience, it’s plausible that the proclivity towards web shopping will increase when it comes time for them to buy toys for their children.

Another encouraging trend that forecasts enhanced ecommerce market share in the future is the amount that users spend online. People with higher basket sizes are more likely to shop online. The largest segment actually spends north of $100/order.

And what toys are people in Thailand purchasing exactly? The survey shows Nerf guns are wildly popular for online purchases along with board games like Monopoly and Transformers action figures.

The overall survey results are consistent with Euromonitor’s analysis of the toys & games industry in Thailand that says the popularity of internet shopping is expected to continue its trajectory of rapid growth, fueled by younger shoppers.

40.1% of this category were secured by web channels in 2015, as compared to 13% in 2010 (although this does include video games, which our survey results excluded).

Euromonitor also makes another prediction: traditional toys and games distributors are expected to expand their internet retailing options over the coming years as more users flock towards this medium.

How can toy brands take advantage?

It’s not enough to list your products on a marketplace and engage in paid campaigns every now and then. Users don’t trust online advertisements; they’re eager to purchase but the one thing holding them back is the nagging uncertainty that the product won’t match expectations.

Often they’ll visit an offline store to see the product up close and personal before purchasing. Little wonder why influencer marketing is becoming so important in a brands’ marketing mix.

Influencer marketing platform MuseFind says 92% of consumers trust an influencer more than an advertisement. And with adblockers flooding browsers, it’s likely that your target consumer simply won’t even view your advertisement, no matter how much money you pour into the campaign.

In Southeast Asia, brands can take a cue from China’s bold forays into live streaming. Quartz predicts this is now a U$5 billion industry with once ordinary citizens catapulted into superstardom simply by broadcasting their lives for the world to see. Such online influencers routinely recommend products they use and their audiences follow suit. Evocative marketing is becoming the new normal.

Other than live streaming, product reviews by YouTube stars is another channel that potential shoppers gravitate towards. An unboxing video can help lower the trust barrier significantly as users know what to expect inside the package.

Some juvenile YouTube stars have racked up millions of subscribers on their page with their videos routinely garnering 10 million+ views.

Children need to feel they’re on the same wavelength as their peers, so if it’s ‘cool’ to buy a new toy then they’ll pester their parents until they get their hands on it.

And what’s cool is what’s trending on the internet.

Brands in Southeast Asia are choosing leading marketplaces like Lazada and Shopee when trialing ecommerce, but most are still unaware of the intricacies of online channels. 

An often overlooked aspect to opening an official Shop-in-Shop (SiS) is the impact of customer reviews. Traditionally, brands have leveraged sources like Nielsen or focus groups to understand consumer behavior but one of the key advantages of an ecommerce store is the ability to analyze consumer sentiment right when it happens.

How much do product reviews really matter?

A 2017 survey by Podium shows that 93% of shoppers find reviews influential when buying online. 88% of consumers trust product reviews as much as a personal recommendation, and 72% say a positive review makes them trust an online business more.

An analysis of 57 million reviews and 35 billion product pages by the Buzzplant network found that increasing the volume of reviews has a tangible effect on your conversion, SEO, and product development.

“Any business owner knows that your most authentic and impactful advocate is a happy customer, and technology has made every customer’s voice extremely powerful,” says Eric Rea, CEO of Podium.

Source: Buzzplant

Impact on SEO

The volume and recurrence of product reviews has a direct correlation to search engine SEO. Moz found in 2017 that “Review Signals” affect up to 13% of how search engines rank results.

The factors that influence SEO include review quantity, review velocity, and review diversity.

In 2013, Google implemented the Hummingbird update, the most significant change to its search engine algorithm since 2001. The new code has far greater affinity for natural language processing and user intent as opposed to the earlier practice of ranking for keyword stuffing.

With Hummingbird, we can assume that product reviews that naturally feature conversational language are given higher search priority.  

Lazada incorporates quantity of reviews and average ratings directly into its Google schema markup. In layman’s terms, this means that consumers in Southeast Asia searching for products on Google will see product ratings and reviews directly in the results.

Lazada SKUs highlight average ratings and number of reviews directly in search results

The More “Helpful” the Review, the Higher the Ranking

We’ve demonstrated the tangible effect of product reviews on conversion and visibility but how many products do consumers read before purchasing?

According to a 2017 study by BrightLocal, 67% of customers read 4+ reviews, and 33% read 11+. Naturally, they’ll read the reviews that appear first on the product page – similar to how the first page of SEO results are the most lucrative.

How does Lazada sort reviews?

The first bifurcation Lazada applies is by splitting reviews into two categories: “Verified” and “Unverified”.

“Verified” reviews are those made by customers who have purchased the product in question and leave a review using the same account. “Unverified” reviews can be made by any visitor to the product page. The “Verified” reviews rank at the top, followed by the “Unverified” reviews.

Visitors to product pages can further “like” a product review by deeming it “helpful”. The most “helpful” reviews will rank at the top, meaning visitors to product pages are more likely to interact with “verified” and “helpful” reviews first.

Data analytics platform BrandIQ delved into the trend between review “helpfulness” and its star rating. By analyzing over 715,000 reviews across four Lazada country sites (ID, TH, PH, SG), it determined that, on average, lower ratings are deemed more “helpful” than higher ratings.

This inverse relationship is a critical reason for brands to pay close attention to its product reviews. Customers are far more likely to be reading negative reviews as their first 4+ rather than positive ones due to Lazada’s ranking algorithm.

What’s the possible recourse for brands?

After speaking with a Lazada support representative, there appears to be two underlying factors that cause the marketplace to take action on product reviews: the use of vulgar language or reviews that have no relevance to the product.

The first factor can be tackled relatively easily. Lazada itself has a quality assurance process to check each product review before it’s uploaded to the product page. However, the astronomical growth of reviews has made it inevitable for some to fall through the cracks. The week of 12-12 in 2017 garnered just over 34,000 product reviews alone.

The second factor is more complicated as they are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Lazada’s technical team will entertain petitions to remove reviews that aren’t related to the product such as issues with delivery that stem from problems with the brand’s third party logistics partner.

To incentivize better service and product quality, Lazada provides a framework to incorporate product reviews into a store’s Seller Rating. This metric looks at the percentage of positive (4 or 5 stars) reviews compared to total reviews.

Lazada advertises Seller Rewards as a gift for high Seller Ratings: such brands will enjoy greater visibility of products in search as well as access to its promotional campaigns.

Lazada’s Seller Performance Metrics

What does this mean?

In essence, product reviews have multiple dimensions and a plethora of use cases. Not only are they taken into account by channels that drive traffic to your SiS, they can make or break a product’s conversion and directly affect your brand’s perceived trust.

Some brands are also leveraging reviews for digital marketing campaigns by incorporating them directly into the ad copy.

Different use cases for product reviews are emerging in digital marketing

Reviews are an under-utilised resource in Southeast Asia, but this might be on the cusp of changing. You could always hope a gem of a review goes viral, like this one:

You might recognize a signature Burberry trench coat because of its distinctive check pattern.

When Burberry first came to life in London in 1856, CEO & founder Thomas Burberry was, at the time, only 21 years of age. The brand focused solely on outdoor attire in its early days but quickly established a reputation for quality and longevity.

In 1879, Burberry received a patent for its ‘gabardine’ fabric – a water-resistant, breathable material that it would use for trench coats. The company went from strength to strength, opening a store in the upscale Haymarket area of London in 1891, designing its signature equestrian knight logo in 1901, and supplying outdoor attire to South Pole expeditioners in 1911.

Burberry’s popularity skyrocketed after its trench coats were used by British infantry forces during the First World War. An outpour of patriotism boosted its brand identity with members of the public clamoring to buy the products after the end of the war.

Further validation came in the form of high profile celebrity endorsements by movie stars such as Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Peter Sellers in Pink Panther.

The UK luxury brand is best known for its sharp coats and jackets but has also ventured out in designing shoes, scarves, bags, & other accessories. By the mid-1980s as a result of spreading itself too thin and chasing short-term profitability goals, the brand started to stagnate. What happened?

The makings of a crisis

The 70s and 80s were rewarding for Burberry in terms of its bottom line. It signed licensing agreements with many global manufacturers to design suits, trousers, shirts, and accessories and distributed them via independent retailers as well as its own stores. The effect of this expansion i.e. higher operating profits was felt well into the 1990s.

But the licensing partnerships also had an unintended effect: counterfeit products flooded markets across the world, particularly in Asia, causing price disparities that existed even in original products.

Western countries were subjected to higher rates and items were often rerouted back to markets; for example, cheaper bags in Asia were exported back to Europe resulting in a blow to its image.

Burberry had severely diluted the power of its brand by adopting a mass-market route. Once associated with list-A celebrities and daring thrill seekers, Burberry had rapidly lost its aura of glitz and glam.

Shockingly, the elitist brand was now equated with thuggery, chicanery, and hooliganism; adopted en-masse by ‘Chavs’ – a pejorative British term used to describe degenerates and lowlifes. Bouncers would turn away people wearing Burberry outfits as it was assumed they would cause trouble once inside.

Shudder.

Turnaround

“Burberry was not able to identify its target group of consumers because of its uneven distribution and licensing policies in different countries of operation,” says Arittra Basu, business development manager at Westin Hotels.

The long road to redemption started in the late 1990s after Burberry hired Rosie Marie Bravo to steer the ship. She immediately tried to stem the decline by reducing the company’s footprint in Asia, ending price disparities, and appointing a new creative head to reestablish the brand’s core values.

In 2006, Angela Ahrendts was appointed the new CEO and began a journey leading the company to reemerge as a force to be reckoned with.

Initially, there were subtle design changes. The check pattern was scaled back and started to appear less and less on merchandise. Stringent measures were adopted to crackdown on counterfeit items and the licensing agreements were gradually rescinded to centralize design and operations under one roof.

But the most important decision made by Ahrendts, along with Chief Creative Officer Christopher Bailey was the declaration of their vision to see Burberry as the world’s first fully digital luxury company.

The brand had, in their opinion, appealed to an older clientele for far too long. It was time to catch the attention of suave and fashionable millennials.

Digital would be central to the brand’s way of thinking and customers would be treated to the same experience whether online or in-store.

One of the most popular campaigns Burberry launched was the ‘Art of the Trench’, a unique play on user-generated content to bring consumers at the forefront.

Art of the Trench. Photo credit: Creativity Online

This was a standalone website where customers were encouraged to upload photos of themselves wearing their trench coats. They were featured on the main page for 15 minutes and customers could share these photos on social media feeds. There was also an option to click on a product and be redirected to Burberry’s main site to purchase it.

The campaign was a resounding success. In 2015, it was reported to have gained almost 25 million pageviews since launch.

Another hugely popular campaign was initiated to promote Burberry Kisses, a lipstick brand launched by the company. For this, it partnered with Google to enable users to send personal messages, sealed with a virtual kiss.

Users from 13,000 cities sent these virtual kisses within the first 10 days of launch.

In 2012, Burberry tried to bridge the gap between the online and offline shopping experience via its Regent Street London store. The store featured huge screens where catwalk shows around the world could be viewed live and the individual products were available for instant purchase.

“Burberry Regent Street brings our digital world to life in a physical space for the first time, where customers can experience every facet of the brand through immersive multimedia content exactly as they do online,” said Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts. “Walking through the doors is just like walking into our website.”

Not only can shoppers buy online from Burberry’s digital properties, they can also choose to pick up in-store or have a sales associate order from the website for them while visiting an outlet. Burberry’s also experimented with flash commerce features via Twitter as well as allowing users in China to order via WeChat.

In China Burberry took the unusual route of opening a store on Tmall; a strategy consistently avoided by upscale brands. The move was meant to counter the growing grey market for its goods as well as embrace the Chinese penchant for online shopping.

Its savvy use of social media has also engendered the growth of a loyal community. The brand has embraced Snapchat to provide peeks into upcoming lines and fashion shows. Burberry’s YouTube channel has over 300,000 subscribers and hundreds of videos that not only showcase trench coats, but also includes makeup tutorials, music jams, and other engaging content.

And the result of all of this? In 2011 Business Insider placed Burberry in the top 10 brands of the world with a growth percentage of 86% as judged by an estimate of its brand value. That far outstripped any other company on the list.

Burberry shares, which languished in the $200 range in 2002 now trade at $1,539.

Of course, challenges persist. Weakening demand for luxury brands hurt Burberry’s profitability last year with the CEO saying that the product range “needs to be refreshed”.

But if it continues with its sharp focus on digital and out-of-the-box thinking, it should be able to weather the relative storm.

“Burberry’s digital strategy […] has so far not only put it at the top of the fashion luxury category but among top players across industries,” wrote Digiday.

With almost 4,300 store locations in 69 markets across the world, fast fashion retailer H&M is a quintessential example of a brand that constantly strives to provide high-quality products at affordable prices.

It’s come a long way since its humble origins.

The first store of what would eventually be known as H&M was opened by Swedish entrepreneur Erling Persson in 1947, after inspiration during a trip to New York. Initially, the store catered to womenswear alone; and was called Hennes, Swedish for ‘Hers’.’

The addition of menswear came after Hennes acquired Stockholm-based retailer Mauritz Widforss in 1968. Stores were rebranded as Hennes & Mauritz with international expansion to Denmark, Norway, U.K, and Switzerland starting the next year.

The acronym H&M was adopted as the firm’s official name after it went public in 1970.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Unprecedented expansion

H&M has grown by an average of 20% year-on-year in revenue since the 1980s. Part of the reason for this ferocious germination has been its ability to unearth the latest trends and sense what its target consumers aspire for.

Like other fast fashion companies, the product pipeline is quickly replenished as its marketing and design teams work in unison to keep clothes, shoes, & accessories up to date.

But it’s not enough just to make products that people want to buy. Brand building involves striking a chord with your audience; a message that H&M has carefully crafted over time.

Its focus on sustainability as a major ethos for the brand has earned acclaim. Consumers can drop off unwanted garments (of any brand) to H&M stores globally, which will be recycled and used in future products.

H&M explains that the global ambition is to work towards a “sustainable fashion future”, where unwanted clothes are used for fresh textile fibers and ensure no garments wind up in landfills.

The drive towards sustainability, which has been embraced by everyone at the company – from the CEO to middle management – is an example of how the company has always sought to redefine itself (and save itself from a PR disaster). Much like its products, the global retailer has tried to avoid stasis and remain top of mind for shoppers.

It first introduced online shopping in 1998 when the concept was still nascent, and in the 2000s set on a spree of international expansion, which saw further store openings in Europe, the US, and East Asia.

But central to the strategy of top line growth was the constant addition of new stores. This entailed costs – locations for new outlets need to be scouted, linking the store to a centralized supply chain, hiring staff, and ensuring all brand guidelines are adhered to. Not only does it take time, it can also prevent a fast fashion brand like H&M from trimming prices as much as it would like.

Challenges lurk

Despite H&M’s original launch of its online store in 1998, analysts are unequivocal in their opinion that the company has been slow to adapt to the internet age.

“We view value fashion retailers as the clothing retail segment most disrupted by online,” explains Anne Critchlow, an analyst at Societe Generale.

Digital disruption has eaten into H&M’s business. Pure play fashion ecommerce sites like Asos, Zalando, Zappos, and even Amazon private label brands don’t have to contend with managing expensive offline inventory and retail space. It helps them keep prices low in an attempt to undercut retailers like H&M.

Asos recorded US$2.6 billion in sales last year – a fair distance behind H&M – but the brand operates with a fraction of the same overheads as the Swedish retailer.

Euromonitor International estimates that online channels account for 14% of the global apparel and footwear market, with an overall size of US$231.7 billion. In developed markets, this statistic is even higher: 15.5% for the US, 18.7% for the UK, and 25.9% for China.

H&M is physically present in 69 countries but only offers ecommerce in 43.

The primary target market for fast fashion brands are digitally savvy millennials, which begs the question, why have they been so slow to respond?

CEO of H&M, Karl-Johan Persson says the company has made mistakes in its strategy.

2017 was a disappointing year for the company with its share price sliding to the lowest level since the 2008 financial crisis and the announcement that it would close 170 stores in 2018.

But the company plans on a net addition of 220 stores, causing even further consternation from investors who want it to double down on ecommerce and trim expensive offline forays.

“Fast pace is vital,” affirmed Karl last year, signalling H&M’s intention to accelerate its efforts towards ecommerce.

H&M stock isn’t performing well at all.

But this needs to happen sooner rather than later.

“[H&M and Zara] have been lagging definitely and they do need things like just faster delivery times; shoppers want it now,” explains Maureen Hinton, global retail research director at GlobalData. “They face a tougher, more competitive market who have less to spend and far more competition with Zalando, Amazon, and others.”

What’s the future?

At the moment, H&M seems to be concentrating on markets with large growth potential. Its decision to open up new stores in India helped increase revenue in the country by almost 100% and resulted in 12 new outlets. The retailer is also selling online in India, hoping to capitalize on the ecommerce rush in the South Asian state.

But this seems to be a repetition of the old business model, which hasn’t exactly gone to plan. The writing’s on the wall. US retailers are in significant stress as they haven’t prepared for the digital age.

Millennials demand an omni-experience i.e. a consistent experience across both online and offline. Zara, has already picked up on this trend with its popup shop in London trying to bridge the gap, whereas H&M only realized it needed to integrate physical and online stores after a 2% drop in Q3 compared to last year’s figures.

The company is also relying on its presence on Alibaba’s Tmall to improve its online footprint in overseas markets.

It seems like H&M is finally aware of the fact that it needs to improve its overall purchasing experience. Nils Vinge, H&M’s head of investor relations, told LA Times that they’re deploying algorithms to support forecast demand and reduce the chance of markdowns.

But are these feeble attempts enough to survive in the hypercompetitive environment that fast fashion operates in today?

Part of the reason startups like Asos and Zappos have been able to snatch away market share is because millennials care more about the product, and less for brands. 51% have no preference between private label and national brands.

For H&M, it’s not enough anymore to sell relatively cheap products. The entire retail experience needs an overhaul and it better start doing that soon or the stock price might see a sustained nosedive.

Asian lovers don’t seem to shy away from Valentine’s day.

According to Mastercard, 75% of mainland Chinese are likely to buy a gift for their partner on this amorous occasion, followed by 74% of Thai, and 63% of Malays and Filipinos.

They’re shelling out hefty sums too.

Chinese residents indicated they would spend an average of US$310, closely trailed by Hong Kong at US$282 and Taiwan with US$281.

Filipinos don’t spend as much as some of their other Asian counterparts, but they’re ranked as some of the most romantic in the region.

An Orient McCann study revealed that Filipinos are the most emotional people in the world and second among those who most frequently say “I love you”, making Valentine’s Day an ideal event to let their feelings be known.

Google Trends data for the past week show interest in Valentine’s Day from the Philippines reaching a zenith as we approach the day itself.

Search interest is escalating fast.

What are Filipinos searching for online? And how can brands leverage this information?

Analyzing customer preferences in The Philippines

ecommerceIQ surveyed 500 Filipinos with access to the internet in an effort to understand how they prepare for Valentine’s Day.

87.2% of those surveyed said they intend to purchase a gift to mark the occasion, whereas only 12.8% indicated that they had no plans to do so.

But it’s not so straightforward.

63.9% of survey respondents said their eventual purchase would take place offline.

Within this subset, 42.8% said both the search and purchase would happen in-store and 21.1% outlined that their purchase journey would start online by searching for products but would be followed by a visit to their local mall.

36.1% of the people surveyed said they’re comfortable transacting online, mainly because of better deals & discounts, as well as the option of scheduling delivery at a particular time.

The most popular gifts sought by Filipinos for Valentine’s Day were surprisingly clothes at number one, followed by chocolates, and perfumes.

Flowers ranked a distant fourth – likely because the price of flowers in Manila tends to spike by 500% on or right before Valentine’s Day.

There’s no real substitute for red roses but consumers have a plethora of options when it comes to clothing and perfumes, leading to price stability.

What’s preventing Filipinos from purchasing online?

According to the survey results, more than 75% of respondents exhorted that they prefer to see the product before buying it.

A further 17% said they can’t trust the quality of products they see online or that they’ve been subjected to scams. Only 5% thought malls offer better deals & discounts.

Lazada was the overwhelming favorite among those who did purchase online. Almost 60% of respondents said they’d shop for Valentine’s Day gifts from the popular etailer. Shopee came in second, with 22.2%.

Despite the fact that the most sought-after gift was clothes, pure-play fashion ecommerce site Zalora secured only 4.4% of the vote.

Photo credit: Maxpixel

Capturing love online

Filipino preferences are indicative of a larger trend engulfing global ecommerce markets.

“It’s very hard to launch a brand these days that’s just online-only,” explains Sucharita Mulpuru, analyst at Forrester Research. “It’s an incredibly difficult and crowded ecommerce environment.”

Filipino brands have consistently tried to latch on to prevailing sentiments during Valentine’s Day to either sell more products or increase brand awareness.

Popular fast food joint Jollibee launched a successful campaign last year playing on themes of unrequited love and eventual reunification.

The ads, which were released in three parts, went viral on social media with over 50 million views on Facebook alone.

Condom manufacturer DKT Health gave away nearly 40,000 condoms in Manila during the Valentine’s Day weekend in 2015 by partnering with stalls selling balloons, chocolates, and roses.

Southeast Asian brands are cognizant of this dynamic, at least in Thailand. David Jou, the CEO and co-founder of Pomelo wrote in 2016 about how he viewed offline as a key component of his business moving forward.

“[…] is our goal to be the biggest online fast fashion brand or is our goal to be the biggest fast fashion brand?”, he said, posing an apparent challenge to his team.

Brands in mature ecommerce markets have already started to take a similar route too. Zara opened a pop-up shop in London last month to support its ecommerce channel. Staff at the store were trained to assist with online orders – shoppers can walk in, examine the inventory, receive recommendations from assistants, and eventually pay for the goods they like. But all the products they purchase are shipped to their address.

For companies looking to capitalize on the visible potential and consumer intent to purchase, they’ll have to overcome the prevalent trust barrier currently impeding ecommerce. A consistent online-offline retail experience could very well be a significant first step in doing so.

This is Part 2 of an article by Jeffrey Towson about the aspects of Alibaba’s “new retail” strategy.

In Part 1, I discussed uni-marketing and how the view of new retail for merchants and brands is very different than the view for consumers. A quick summary:

  • For consumers, the view is great. They are going to get what they want, where they want it and when they want it. New retail is a purification of demand.
  • For Alibaba, the view is spectacular. Their huge online marketplace is going to be merged with parts of the physical marketplace. The number of users and the amount of activity on their platform is going to increase dramatically.
  • But the view for merchants, brands, and retailers is more confusing. New retail upends many of their businesses, strategies, customer relationships and maybe even their brands.

In this part, I take an asset and resource view of all this, which I think is a much easier way to understand it.

Point 1: Digital competition is a lot about key resources, which are usually intangible assets.

You can look at competition with various frameworks.

  • Michael Porter famously described five economic forces, which tend to play out over the longer term in more stable industries.
  • Columbia Business School Professor Bruce Greenwald argued that one force, competition, is actually far more important than the other four.
  • Warren Buffett focuses mostly on competitive advantages and their durability.
  • Wharton’s George Day writes about dynamic competition and the constant move and counter-move of many businesses.

I focus mostly on digital competition (note: China is the global epicenter for this). This is a lot about how new digital tools and data are changing the competitive dynamics of traditional industries. For example, retailers traditionally compete on fixed costs and fixed assets (lots of stores, get bigger than your competitor). But ecommerce has a different dynamic. There is a lot more focus on the degree of participation of consumers, merchants and other users.

It can get confusing. And a useful approach is just to take a resource and asset view. Stop looking at the economic forces and competitive advantages, and just look at the assets used to compete. One company has 10 factories and the other only 5. One company has a famous brand that everyone knows and the other is unknown outside of one region. In digital competition, this usually means comparing intangible assets like technology, IP, captured customers, business linkages, and data.

If you take an asset view of competition in ecommerce and new retail, I think there are three big things that jump out as particularly important in a marketplace platform. Note: Alibaba is a marketplace and a pure digital competitor. JD is more of a hybrid of a marketplace (enable transactions but don’t take inventory or be the seller of record) and a direct retailer (buy and sell the goods yourself). For marketplace platforms (like Alibaba and VIP.com), the resources that matter are:

  • Captured online consumers. Their number, time spent, money spent and their participation on the site. And your degree of capture.
  • Captured online merchants and brands. Their number, their percent of business on the site, the integration of their operations into the site and their marketing activity on the site.
  • Content creators. Although this can be done as another type of retail (like Amazon’s digital media) or as an audience-building platform (like Youku)
  • Data from ecommerce, entertainment, social media and other sources.

These assets (both the users and the degree of activity) on the platform enable virtually everything else.

  • You can add new services and products.
  • You can add new types of revenue streams (transaction fees, marketing services, operational services, gifting, advertising, etc.).
  • And hopefully, you can use these assets to build competitive barriers. Network effects are the most desired. But there are also data network effects, MSP advantages, softer data advantages and linked businesses.

I view Alibaba as a particularly powerful version of this with three interconnected platforms: a marketplace platform, an audience-building content platform, and a payment platform.

These core assets cost a certain amount of money to acquire (plus time and difficulty). It’s a useful way to look at a company. But it’s also important to remember that these asset costs are different from the value they can then create. Similarly, the cost of a factory is different that the market value of the products it creates. And the cost of a college degree is different than how much you will make from it.

If you take an asset view, the sequence for marketplace platforms is usually:

  • Get an initial critical mass of users, merchants and data. There is usually a chicken-and-egg problem to get started (to get the consumers you need merchants, but to get merchants you need consumers).
  • Grow the number of users and their activity, mostly by data and digital tools. In marketplaces, personalization and curation are two of the big guns for this. Ancillary moves into new products and services or into new geographies (cross-border ecommerce) also really work.
  • Try to protect the platform with network effects, linked businesses, softer advantages and assets that are difficult to replicate.

Point 2: How these assets change over time is really important.

Alibaba is a virtual marketplace (so far). There are lots of supporting and complementary services (entertainment, payments, logistics / delivery, credit, etc.) but the core business remains connecting consumers with merchants and brands. And then making money from their transactions – and also from the marketing and other spending by merchants and brands on the platform. It’s a virtual shopping mall (Tmall) and a virtual trading bazaar (Taobao).

So what is the big difference between the intangible assets that create virtual marketplaces and the tangible assets that create real shopping malls? One of the most important differences is how these assets change of time.

If we were looking at a real shopping mall or bazaar, we would depreciate the PP&E over time. There would ongoing capex to maintain and maybe additional to grow. And in times of higher inflation, these assets can be a big problem as they really increase the cost structure. Plus there is also the real estate and land price aspects, which can be particularly important in downtown locations and in places like China.

But a marketplace made of intangible assets doesn’t necessarily decay over time. It certainly doesn’t straight-line depreciate. You may have to spend to keep it running (a type of maintenance capex, operating cost and customer retention cost) and for required upgrades – but the economic goodwill (not accounting goodwill, which is nonsense) should increase over time. And it doesn’t get hit by inflation (although labor costs can be a problem).

The same process can be true for other businesses that rely on intangible assets. Share of consumer mind (a Buffett term) is a big deal for Coca-Cola. Intellectual property and data / claims history can be important in technology and insurance. And so on.

But two differences I think about for intangible assets versus physical assets are:

  • Intangible assets can increase in real economic value over time – and often quite powerfully. This is good news.
  • Intangible assets are easier to replicate and often do not offer the types of competitive protection you get with physical assets. This is bad news (and why network effects and soft advantages can be critical).

Here’s how this can play out in marketplace platforms:

  • The more customers that come, the more valuable (and necessary) it is for merchants and brands to participate and compete with each other through marketing.
  • The more stores that arrive the more options consumers have and the richer their experience.
  • The more transactions and data from transactions, browsing and others sources (entertainment, etc) the more personalized and engaging the experience. This can enable more spending and engagement.
  • The more this ecosystem grows, the more difficult it is for a new competitor to replicate the entire ecosystem. The assets grow organically and become harder and harder to replicate.

Note: Parts of this can be described as a network effect. But it’s more about the degree of participation. Most MSPs do not have network effects and derive their value from their intangible assets.

Additionally, you get some competitive protection from an ability to cross-subsidize different parts of the platform (girls get free drinks at bars, men pay more). You can create complementary networks (Taobao helps Alipay and vice-versa). Yu can get linked businesses (Amazon’s cloud business subsidizes its logistics). And so on.

Question 1: How does “new retail” change a resource view of ecommerce?

This is the question I have been thinking about a lot. And a lot of this article is me thinking out loud.

But new retail is clearly a massive jump in the assets on the marketplace platform. And while all the talk is about physical retail, is Alibaba actually adding physical assets to their platform? I don’t think so. I think they are just leveraging in the intangibles of the tangible assets.

To me, new retail looks like it adds two big assets to the platform that Alibaba doesn’t have today. These are offline sales data and physical retailers, merchants and brands as users.

Take the “new retail” initiative in convenience stores. Alibaba is providing digital tools that transform mom-and-pop convenience stores in China. They plug in the tools and the stores gets three basic benefits.

  • Online customers can be driven into the stores from the local area (maybe). The merchant gets access to local online customers the same way an online merchant does. And they can market to them. Although in this case you are fighting for the customers in your neighborhood, not nationally. And you are fighting against other digitized local merchants, not every merchant in China.
  • They get digital tools that upgrade their payments, inventory, and supply chain. They get a bit of a store tech upgrade. Ideally, they get more efficient operations. Although adopting these tools also creates switching costs.
  • They get data that helps them choose their inventory for what people in that neighborhood actually want. This is hugely important and is part of Alibaba’s “uni-marketing” initiative.

And what does Alibaba get?

Well, the physical merchant just became as user in their marketplace platform. They add the transactions, the user and the data of the physical merchant without adding the physical assets. And they also probably got some new offline customers, but most everyone in China is already on Taobao.

So Alibaba is not going to own a lot of stores, such as Hema supermarkets or convenience stores. They are going to perfect the various business models and franchise out the system, the data and the technology tools. And for the hypermarkets, they will likely put that in a separate, associated and asset-heavy partner. And they will remain the data / tech partner for this, as they has done in logistics with Cainiao. The core marketplace, the engine of Alibaba, is going to remain tangible asset-lite and intangible asset-rich.

Now imagine they roll this out to 100,000 convenience stores in China? How many of those stores can be moved onto their ecosystem in this way? And then supermarkets? And then department stores? With a resource view, the size of the “new retail” opportunity is massive

Question 2: Who will own the customers in “new retail”?

This strikes me as a big question. Merchants are on Taobao and Tmall because they have to be. That’s where the customers are. They may also have their own branded website but they are also on Taobao and Tmall. And they can drive their customers to their stores and their own websites from here to a certain degree. But if they leave the Alibaba ecosystem customer retention is a problem. Famous companies like Zara and Apple have their own brands and customers. But most small merchants do not have this type of loyalty.

So this raises a question for new retail: if a physical merchant unplugs from the platform, do they take their customers with them? Or do those customers start getting directed to a different convenience store down the street? Who owns the customer in new retail?

WRITTEN BY: Jeffrey Towson