Earlier this year, Amazon partnered with the Vietnam Ecommerce Association (VECOM) to provide ecommerce services for local online businesses under VECOM. They also held numerous workshops for sellers, the latest one being in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, called Selling Globally on Amazon.

Similarly, Alibaba-backed AliExpress has been looking to sign up more Vietnamese sellers on its platform since July as it teams up with OSB Investment and Technology JSC to support international exports by Vietnamese small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Why Vietnam?

Vietnam is one of the biggest exporters in the world, ranked at number 28 out of 225 countries at $214 billion of export value in 2017. Based on 2016’s exports data, Vietnam’s main exports are machinery products, textile goods, and footwear and headwear products.

Figure 1: Vietnam’s amount of exports and its categories in 2016; OEC

Vietnam has become a manufacturing hub with one of the lowest minimum wages in the ASEAN region at $147 to $167 per month (Figure 2). Expanding infrastructure for new projects and a rapidly increasing working age group have promoted low-cost mass-production with many global companies establishing manufacturing bases in the country.

Global companies are benefitting from low production costs but local businesses also have access to ready-to-sell goods at competitive prices. In Vietnam, some 600,000 SMEs are searching for appropriate channels to expand their market share. Ecommerce offers this opportunity from the comfort of their homes.

Figure 2: Minimum wage in ASEAN for 2017; World Economic Forum, Philippines’ National Wage and Productivity Commission, The ASEAN Post

As in all other developing countries, ecommerce in Vietnam is mushrooming. Statista forecast annual growth at 16.8%, higher than Thailand (12.8%) and Indonesia (13%). However, the Vietnamese market is small and still in its infancy. Therefore, the international market offers economic opportunities for local retailers.

Vietnamese merchants are attracted to global e-marketplaces which access customers searching for a broader variety of products and enable international sales at low cost. Online merchandising boosts sales while mitigating the risks of the local economic downturn.

AliExpress executive Yang Ninh commented, “Vietnam, as one of the most diverse manufacturers in the world, is an important destination for Alibaba.”

Comparing between Amazon and AliExpress

To know which platform suits Vietnamese sellers, we compared the specifications of the two platforms in the table below.

Amazon

AliExpress

  • 2.435 billion monthly visits at an average of 6 minutes per visit
  • Most Amazon customers have a high annual income (above $30,000)
  • Visitors are mainly from the Americas, Australia, Western Europe, and South and East Asia (Figure 3)
  • Available in different languages with localized websites in the US, UK, and Japan
  • Monthly subscription fee of $39.99 for those selling over 40 items per month – professional plan or per-item fee of $0.99 for each item sold – individual plan
  • Referral fee of 3-45% of total sales price or a $1 applicable minimum referral fee, whichever is greater, depending on the product category
  • Shipments completed either by sellers using courier services from providers like UPS, DHL and local post or fulfillment by Amazon
  • 549 million monthly visits at an average of 8 minutes per visit
  • Most AliExpress customers have lower annual income (below $30,000)
  • Visitors are mainly from the Americas, Australia, Europe, Asia, and a few African countries (Figure 3)
  • Available in different languages such as French, Spanish, and Korean serving over 200 countries
  • Annual service fee of at least $1,436 (RMB 10,000) and 5-8% seller commission; amount depends on the product category
  • Annual service fees are eligible for 50% and 100% discount if sales reach a certain amount depending on the product category
  • Shipments completed either by sellers, AliExpress or other delivery companies

Figure 3: Where visitors of Amazon (top) and AliExpress (bottom) are located and their average income; Alexa

Whether Vietnamese sellers choose Amazon or AliExpress depends on the target market

Those selling high-end, expensive products may prefer to sell on Amazon because site visitors have higher purchasing power and the majority hail from developed countries. Those wishing to target consumers in the Americas may also prefer Amazon which has a stronger top-of-mind awareness in the region.

Conversely, AliExpress offers Vietnamese sellers a wider global customer base. AliExpress has a more extensive global presence (Figure 3), with site visitors to the platform spending on average 2 minutes longer than at Amazon.

However, the annual service fee at AliExpress is higher than Amazon. Sellers with limited funds or those just starting out might be better to opt for Amazon which also offers different pricing plans for individuals and professionals. Meanwhile, AliExpress discounts annual service fees for retailers if they manage to attain the required annual sales specified for particular categories. This offers value for those selling hundreds or thousands of items.

Vietnam has many local ecommerce players, providing sellers with alternative options for domestically growth. However, reliance on these e-marketplaces alone is not sufficient for Vietnamese sellers to tap international customers.  Listing on either or both of the AliExpress or Amazon platforms offers the most realistic opportunity to maximize sales.

On June 28, 2018, Alibaba announced the launch of Taobao Xinxuan (淘宝心选), which translates to ‘Taobao Selected’. After a year in alpha testing, the company’s new concept is finally available to the wider public.

Through the website or one of two physical stores in Hangzhou and Shanghai, users can shop for affordable quality lifestyle and functional daily necessity goods including home fragrance, smart power sockets, underwear, and sonic-control toothbrushes.

ecommerceIQ

Rimowa?

According to TechNode, the recently opened store in Shanghai was raided and emptied by eager customers in a mere two hours.

What is Taobao Xinxuan?

Appearance wise, the Taobao Xinxuan concept will remind many of Japanese retailer Muji, whose clean and simplistic stores offer a wide range of quality and affordable clothing, stationery, bags, and even furniture.

ecommerceIQ

Taobao Xinxuan Store Concept Design

From a business model perspective, Taobao Xinxuan is actually more like Xiaomi, the smartphone-manufacturer-turned-global-electronics brand. Its Manufacturer-to-Consumer (M2C) approach and short supply chain allows the company to quickly go from the latest consumer insights to manufacturers to create products and achieve go-to-market in a few months.

ecommerceIQ

Xiaomi Flagship Store in Shanghai

ecommerceIQ

Xiaomi Flagship Store in Shanghai

Arguably, Taobao Xinxuan could be considered a clone of the M2C ecommerce platform launched by Chinese gaming company NetEase called Yanxuan. Since its release in 2016, Yanxuan has seen rapid growth in a unique vertical that avoids direct competition with Alibaba and JD.com.

The Yanxuan model can be described as an ODM (Original Design Manufacturer) model as well. By going directly to Chinese manufacturers creating products for established global brands, NetEase is able to get the same quality while selling at a much lower price by skipping over distributors.

ecommerceIQ

NetEase’s Yanxuan website

By targeting young, mainly urban consumers who value quality and design but are also price sensitive, Yanxuan has been able to achieve rapid growth in the Chinese ecommerce space. The company reached a monthly GMV (gross merchandise volume) of RMB 60 million (about US$9 million) by Q3 2016, only a few months after its initial launch. This allowed Yanxuan to break into the list of top 10 Chinese ecommerce platforms based on GMV.

ecommerceIQ

Yanxuan Home & Living Category

Alibaba’s New Trojan Horse?

For a business to execute the M2C model well, it needs to understand what consumers want and then act on it swiftly. Considered the pioneer in M2C in China, Xiaomi is well known for asking its users directly what they’d like to see in terms of new features and products.

Another company that knows what its users want is – surprise, surprise – Alibaba. Being the largest ecommerce company in China, Alibaba has extensive data on what brands and products people are buying and when and where. This doesn’t even include the additional data it gathers through its other businesses Ant Financial, Ali Health, and its offline Hema supermarkets and ‘New Retail’ initiatives.

Alibaba’s US counterpart Amazon hasn’t shied-away from using its data to introduce its own private label brands to compete directly with the other brands selling on its platform.

“The company now has roughly 100 private label brands for sale on its huge online marketplace, of which more than five dozen have been introduced in the past year alone. But few of those are sold under the Amazon brand. Instead, they have been given a variety of anodyne, disposable names like Spotted Zebra (kids clothes), Good Brief (men’s underwear), Wag (dog food) and Rivet (home furnishings).”

New York Times, ‘How Amazon Steers Shoppers to Its Own Products’

And this move by Amazon isn’t a small pilot project. Amazon private labels have a large impact on revenue:

“The results were stunning. In just a few years, AmazonBasics had grabbed nearly a third of the online market for batteries, outselling both Energizer and Duracell on its site.”

Amazon’s home court advantage gives it a leg up versus other brands:

“Take word searches. About 70 percent of the word searches done on Amazon’s search browser are for generic goods. That means consumers are typing in “men’s underwear” or “running shoes” rather than asking, specifically, for Hanes or Nike.

For Amazon, those word searches by consumers allow it to put its private-label products in front of the consumer and make sure they appear quickly. In addition, Amazon has the emails of the consumers who performed searches on its site and can email them directly or use pop-up ads on other websites to direct those consumers back to Amazon’s marketplace.”

Alibaba has been flying under the radar with regards to any private label initiatives, and for good reason. Unlike Amazon, which started out as a retailer buying and selling products, Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall properties are pure marketplace plays from the beginning. Because Alibaba’s main goal is helping connect merchants and buyers via its platforms, a neutral stance is essential to the platform’s success.

It’s not surprising then that Alibaba decided to launch Xinxuan as ‘Taobao Xinxuan’ rather than ‘Tmall Xinxuan’. Originally a part of Taobao, Tmall spun off to provide a more premium B2B2C marketplace for authentic brands to sell their products online. Mixing in Xinxuan’s private label products would only upset brands competing in similar product categories.

Lazada’s LazMall a stepping stone towards introducing Lazada private label in Southeast Asia?

Last week, Lazada officially launched LazMall, its Southeast Asian version of Tmall. It’s a move towards splitting Lazada (‘b-to-C’) and LazMall (‘B-to-c’) and aims to offer a premium place for big brands to sell online, away from the grey market sellers on the platform.

ecommerceIQ

From the outside, this looks like an obvious move against JD, known to offer a better customer experience according to our recent Indonesia online marketplace survey.

However, seeing Alibaba’s new concept in China with Taobao Xinxuan, it’s not far-fetched the LazMall spin-off will lead to Lazada M2C private label brands in the near future.

The Chinese ecommerce market, being about 10 years ahead of the Southeast Asian one, acts like a crystal ball for brands operating in our region. Battle-tested brands with operations in China know better to diversify their channels before putting all their eggs into a single basket.

Southeast Asian-native brands are recommended to shake off their naivety and learn from China’s history.

Monogamy in ecommerce does not lead to happiness.

What’s Pinduoduo?

Pinduoduo, or PDD, is a social commerce app founded by Colin Huang, an ex-Google engineer, in September 2015. Only a couple of years old, PDD has become the fastest growing ecommerce company in China. It raised $100 million in 2017, is backed by China’s Banyan Capital and Tencent, and valued at a whopping $1.5 billion.

Source: Crunchbase

As of Feb 21, 2018, PDD ranks #3 overall in the Chinese iTunes app store ranking for free apps, after popular apps like Tik Tok (Douyin) and WeChat, and ahead of other shopping apps like Taobao. PDD went from 100 million yuan ($16 million) GMV a month in early 2016 to 4 billion yuan ($630 million) GMV a month by 2017, putting it in fourth place behind Alibaba, JD and Vipshop.

How does Pinduoduo work?

Users can download the PDD app or access it within WeChat. Like any ecommerce platform, PDD offers products across a wide range of categories from food to fashion. However, unlike Tmall and JD, PDD incentivizes users with discounts to invite friends to buy in groups.

 

For example, one container of Similac Advance Infant Formula Powder costs 59 yuan if you buy alone but only 35.5 yuan if you can get one other person to buy it too. In the screenshot below, a total of 1,822 pairs have “group-purchased” this item already.

 

 

In addition to group discounts, PDD also incentivizes customer acquisition. Getting users to follow the PDD WeChat Official Account, install the app, and sign up via WeChat login will earn them free products.

PDD also offers cash red envelopes worth 5-20 yuan to users for each friend they get to download the app and register. The entire system is then gamified through a public leaderboard.

Wait, is this new? Didn’t Groupon invent social commerce?

Groupon did arguably pioneer the group buying concept. In its early days, a certain number of users had to sign up for the same deal in order for everyone to receive the voucher. But unlike PDD, there wasn’t a direct incentive; users had to sit back and wait for anonymous users to tip the scale.

This mechanism was quickly abandoned to scale faster with minimum thresholds that acted more like gimmicks.

Groupon was labeled “social commerce” at first but in its later years, lost its social aspect.

Source: wiredtech on Flickr.com

Let’s take a step back and look at the definition of social commerce, according to ConversionXl:

“Social commerce is defined as the ability to make a product purchase from a third-party company within the native social media experience.”

Groupon emerged in the pre-mobile age of 2008 when most consumers still transacted via desktop, especially in the company’s US home market. Back then, less than 1% of ecommerce transactions were via mobile acquisition channels.

In addition, the company’s main distribution channel was email newsletters, a slow and high-friction medium and payments weren’t seamless either as users relied on a credit card or PayPal.

Now looking at 2016 in China – PDD’s first full year in operation – WeChat is the country’s dominant “super app” and leading medium to socialize online with 889 million Monthly Active Users (MAUs) by year end.

71% of ecommerce now takes place on mobile, creating a flattering backdrop for the rapid rise of PDD, which started out as an app on WeChat.

Paying for products on PDD is also remarkably easy because the app makes it automatic. After the first payment, users can opt for one-click payment via WeChat Pay that don’t require passwords.

Desktop usage, clunky email newsletters, and credit card payments limited Groupon’s true social commerce potential. Where Groupon failed, PDD is succeeding because of an ecosystem of mobile-first users and WeChat’s features that make it a super app.

Will PDD come to Southeast Asia?

Why not? Southeast Asia ecommerce is already being carved up by Alibaba and Tencent. Lazada and Tokopedia, two companies owned and invested in by Alibaba, dominate the B2C and C2C space on one end and Tencent-invested JD, Shopee, and Go-Jek are on the other end.

With Southeast Asia’s horizontal ecommerce market being consolidated into a few properties like Lazada, Tokopedia, JD and Shopee, there isn’t as much opportunity in the space as before.

New ecommerce players have to focus on dominating a specific, vertical category or provide a competitive advantage through means other than outspending peers in advertising and/or coupon subsidies.

This is where a model like PDD fits snuggly.

It also helps that one of PDD’s biggest investors is Tencent, which already has its eyes set on the rapidly growing Southeast Asian market.

Will the PDD business model work in Southeast Asia?

To determine if the PDD model would work in the region, we need to identify the criteria that were conducive to its success in China:

1. Lack of distribution channels / expensive distribution channels

If you strip away all the hype, PDD’s competitive advantage is in its customer acquisition strategy. Instead of relying on expensive channels like display advertising or paid search (e.g. Baidu ads), PDD is paying its users to get more users. For example, CPCs alone on Baidu can range from 5 to 25 yuan. Note these are clicks, not even users acquired.

Southeast Asia (excl. Singapore and Malaysia) is very similar to China in terms of lack of channels, due to a similar “no-tail” ecosystem. Whereas entrepreneurs in China had to pick their poison between Baidu, Sina and Sohu back in the day, startups in emerging Southeast Asia are limited to Facebook Ads, Google Search, and portals like Detik in Indonesia and Sanook in Thailand.

Early entrants like Lazada took advantage of low cost-per-clicks (CPCs) back in 2013 but given the raging ecommerce “bloodbath”, online ad CPCs have gone through the roof.

Having saturated online channels, Lazada started exploring offline advertising channels like TV and out-of-home media.

Others like Pomelo Fashion tapped into physical stores as a more cost-efficient way to acquire users and simplify last-mile logistics.

PDD social and viral customer acquisition strategies could work quite well.

2. High mobile commerce penetration

The majority of ecommerce transactions in China now take place on mobile. In 2016, 71% of ecommerce GMV was on mobile. In the US, this number was only 20% in 2016.

In Southeast Asia, companies like Lazada and Shopee today see over 65% of their orders coming from mobile (with 21.6% using both mobile and desktop to shop), according to a recent survey by ecommerceIQ.

Needless to say, high mobile penetration in Southeast Asia along with high mobile ecommerce usage will provide a fertile ground for a business model like PDD to gain traction here.

3. Frictionless mobile payments

One of the drivers of PDD’s success is its seamless payments through WeChat Pay.

This will be a challenge for PDD in Southeast Asia as only Singapore and Malaysia are credit card dominated whereas the rest of the region is mainly a cash-on-delivery market.

Source: ecommerceIQ

Despite efforts to come up with a universal mobile payment standard, no one has succeeded as of today. Efforts like Sea’s AirPay, Ascend’s True Pay, and LINE Pay have hit a wall due to lack of distribution, lack of use case, and a plethora of other issues.

Right now, most eyes are on Go-Jek’s Go-Pay, which has a massive distribution channel by leveraging Go-Jek’s 40 million install base and 10 million Weekly Active Users (WAUs). In addition, and more importantly, Go-Jek addresses emerging Southeast Asia’s unique lack of both credit card and bank account penetration — users are able to top up their Go-Pay accounts by handing cash to Go-Jek drivers that essentially act like mobile ATM deposit machines.

While still a poor-man’s WeChat Pay, Go-Pay offers hope for business models like that of PDD to thrive in Southeast Asia.

4. Attachment to popular social platform

Without the WeChat ecosystem, PDD wouldn’t have been the company it is today. Being embedded in WeChat, PDD was able to quickly get massive distribution by tapping into the potential 889 million MAUs of WeChat.

In Southeast Asia, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and LINE are highly popular, however, none are considered super apps that offer seamless integration.

The closest to WeChat in Southeast Asia would probably be Indonesia’s Go-Jek.

While Go-Jek hasn’t entered ecommerce yet (it’s positioned only as a services marketplace and offers delivery for partners through its GO-MART product), it wouldn’t be surprising if PDD decided to leverage the Go-Jek platform, given the similarities to WeChat in China. Like PDD, Go-Jek also counts Tencent as an investor.

With an estimated third of ecommerce in markets like Thailand happening on Facebook, Instagram and LINE, the user behavior of buying through social channels already exists.

5. Access to cheap product sourcing

If you browse through PDD, you’ll notice that most of the products sold bear similarities to many of those sold on Taobao. In other words, a lot of “mass” and non-branded products. PDD thrives in China because of easy access to a supply of these products manufactured locally.

However, in Southeast Asia, these kind of products (typically sold on social media and C2C platforms) are imported from China, which leaves less margin for PDD to play with in terms of discounts and customer acquisition.

To sum up, emerging Southeast Asia meets several of the criteria behind PDD’s success in China but poses some unique challenges:
ecommerceIQ

What will happen next?

In the analysis, we’ve identified some of the drivers of PDD’s rapid rise in China and also their presence in emerging Southeast Asian markets at an earlier stage.

Given this opportunity, we can expect the following scenarios to play out over the next few months and years:

1. Local and Chinese entrepreneurs will launch PDD clones across the region

Ever since opening up to the world in the 80s, we can describe China having gone through the following three stages, with the third one still progressing as we speak:

1. Made-in-China (1980-2000)

China perceived as manufacturing base for (often cheap, low-quality) export products

2. Copy-to-China (2000-2015)

Chinese entrepreneurs, some foreign educated, bring back models that worked in the US, e.g. Search (Google -> Baidu), Portals (Yahoo -> Sina, Sohu)

3. Copy-from-China (2015-2030)

Birth of unique Chinese Internet business models (e.g. bike-sharing, payments, live streaming, social commerce, O2O). Increasing media focus on Chinese tech innovation and locals outside of China looking for Chinese models to copy

We are witnessing stage 3 happening right here in Southeast Asia. Below is a Thai post on Facebook looking to recruit staff to work on what looks like a PDD clone:

It doesn’t have to be local talent copying PDD from China to Southeast Asia. With the influx of Alibaba, Tencent and JD into the region, there are plenty of Chinese employees who’ll be noticing the similarities between Southeast Asia today and China, and jump on new opportunities.

2. PDD will enter Indonesia through Go-Jek (helped by common investor Tencent)

If PDD were to follow Alibaba and Tencent’s steps and enter Southeast Asia, we expect them to join forces with Go-Jek. By embedding itself inside Go-Jek, PDD is executing the same game plan that led to its rapid initial growth within the WeChat ecosystem. Fostered by a shared investor — Tencent — Go-Jek would be the perfect launch partner for PDD in Southeast Asia.

3. Existing players will adopt the PDD business model to compete against horizontal ecommerce plays

Local ecommerce players like MatahariMall, Konvy, and Orami could pre-empt PDD by adopting its customer acquisition strategies to compete with regional giants like Lazada and Shopee.

For Konvy and Orami, two female-focused ecommerce platforms, this move could make a lot of sense since the majority of PDD’s users in China are female, over 40 year old, and living in smaller cities.

Play on players.

GUEST POST BY: JEFFREY TOWSON

H&M and Zara are two companies I pay a lot of attention to in China.

  • They have great business models. Fast fashion is really impressive in general.
  • They are popular with Chinese consumers.
  • They are both following market leader Uniqlo in terms of expansion into second and third-tier cities.
  • They seem to be growing steadily, despite slowing growth in apparel overall.

Overall, both look like big winners in China going forward. But I think there are two potential threats emerging. More on this in a second. First a quick diversion.

I keep a list of questions that I think are both important but difficult. These are things I try to figure out over time. One of these questions is “will fast fashion work the same in China as elsewhere?”. As exemplified by Zara and H&M, fast fashion has been a stunningly powerful business model. It continues to expand in the Europe and US – and is now growing in emerging markets. But it’s still not clear to me how well it will do in China, where consumers are fickle, competitors are ferocious and mobile/ecommerce appears to be changing almost everything in retail.

My answer to this question, thus far, is that the Western fast fashion giants are well positioned for China and for rising Chinese consumers.

The Zara and H&M business model has been studied extensively. It relies on syncing consumer behavior in stores with centralized design/manufacturing capabilities. Zara is the more extreme case with manufacturing in-house and re-design and shipping done on almost a weekly basis based on customer purchases. H&M, in contrast, has most of its manufacturing outsourced to Asia.

This “quick reaction” apparel platform makes great sense in China. If >50% of a season’s merchandise is re-mixed and re-designed during the season, that enables you to change with rapidly changing Chinese consumers. In this, “quick reaction” has a strength (i.e., reacting in real time to changing tastes) where many other Chinese consumer-facing companies have a perpetual problem.

This operating model also enables them to push discount versions of the latest designs from the fashion capitals (Paris, Milan, etc.) to China stores in a couple of weeks. Having design centralized in Europe also probably helps these stores in China. It is a differentiating strength relative to both local Chinese competitors and to “slower fashion” houses like Gucci and Prada.

Overall, fast fashion still looks like a great approach for rising Chinese consumers.

One more quick aside

(skip to the below points if you’re reading quick).

One of the benefits of fast fashion is you can have multiple style waves instead of 2-3 fashion seasons per year. One result of this is that consumers tend to come in more often as there is frequently new stuff to see. This, in theory, gets you greater revenue (people come more and buy more). You also get a greater “share of the consumer mind” (a Warren Buffett term). Greater frequency of consumer activity generally creates a stronger brand and a better relationship.

Financially, these frequent style waves also show up as less discounting of goods (a perpetual problem in fashion retail), higher revenue, and better working capital. That’s the theory anyway. And H&M and Zara do produce tons of cash, which they can then put into more scale and more stores. It’s a powerful approach when compared to traditional department stores or luxury fashion houses.

That said, it’s not clear to me that you get these same benefits in China. In particular, I don’t know if you see the same increased visits and branding benefits. Cycle times are already pretty fast in China. Most of the textile/apparel production is actually done in China / Asia. And I’m not sure you have the same historical expectations for a seasons’ new merchandise to contrast with. So I’m not sure about the revenue and gross margins of this model in China. Gross margins are typically 60% elsewhere.

Ok. Back to my main point, that there are two threats to the big China dreams of these fast fashion giants.

Threat 1: Ecommerce, mobile, and O2O are happening fast in China – and these companies are not real fast at this stuff.

Retailers are pretty much ground zero for changes in Chinese e-commerce, mobile, and online-to-offline activity. Digital transformation is hitting this sector like just about no other (except maybe auto and transportation).

First, the rapid adoption of everything mobile in China is transforming the interface with consumers. It is no longer just about walking in the mall and then going into a nice store like it might happen in Sweden. The Chinese customer experience is already a combination of the mall, a store, your activities in various online ecosystems and a rapidly developing logistics/delivery network. The two words you hear over and over in Chinese retail are digital and delivery. How this offline-online mix is going to play out and what “new retail” is going to end up looking like is unclear. But Chinese retail is where it is happening really quickly.

Against this rapidly changing Chinese retail landscape, here are some disturbing facts. Zara didn’t have an online store until around 2010 (about a decade after the Gap). And H&M didn’t start online sales in the US until around 2012. They also didn’t open a shop on Tmall until 2014. These companies are notoriously slow in digital stuff.

Both Zara and H&M are awesome in inventory and logistics. That is their strength. They have a powerful supply chain that connects retail activity around the world with centralized design and manufacturing, almost in real time. But they have been pretty slow when it comes to ecommerce and mobile. And these are precisely the things that are happening quickly in China – and that their Chinese competitors are particularly good at.

Threat 2: The local Chinese competition is moving upmarket.

You also need to consider the recent actions of the Chinese apparel giants such as Peacebird, Heilan, and Septwolves. They operate about 10x more stores than the foreign companies. Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo have 200-500 stores each. Helian and Septwolves have 2,000-4,000 stores each.

These big local competitors have historically been cheaper but they are now upgrading and moving upmarket. They are going to increasingly challenge Uniqlo, Zara, and H&M, especially as they continue to expand into second and third-tier cities.

When you combine #1 and #2, things get really interesting. What happens when you combine rising Chinese competitors with big digital, mobile and ecommerce disruptions? Does that change the fast fashion business model that has been so powerful in so many countries? This is the question I have been thinking about.

Anyways, that said, both H&M and Zara do appear to be in great shape in China right now. They both continue to open tons of China stores each year. They have a nicely adaptable model that is well-suited to the continually changing preferences of Chinese consumers. And Chinese consumers keep getting wealthier and wealthier. So that is all pretty great.

These companies may well turn out to be unbeatable in China, just like in most other places. But I am keeping an eye on these two particular threats to their China plans. We’ll see.


The first version of this article was published here

With the boom of technology in the region, Southeast Asia has become home to young startups, and investors hoping to help fuel its rapid growth.

Some examples of investment news surrounding the region only this year include Chinese ecommerce giant JD.com confirming a $500 million joint venture with Thai retailer Central to build up the ecommerce and fintech sector in Thailand; Malaysia Debt Ventures set aside a $238 million fund to target technology-based companies like AR, VR, etc; and 500 Startups has made its debut investment in Myanmar backing a social media monitoring and news discovery app.

A recent report commissioned by Google and AT Kearney also highlights just how much money has been funneled into the region, which market is the most attractive and where are the most deep-pocketed investors coming from.

Southeast Asia’s golden child

Although the investment for startup companies in Southeast Asia only contributed to 8% to the total $90 billion of investment into Asia, this value has grown 23 times from 2012 to 2016 from $0.3 billion to $6.8 billion.

Most of the money has been pumped into Singapore and Indonesia that captured 60% of the entire investment.

Indonesia startups investment

Singapore gained most of the startup investment in Southeast Asia

However, nothing shone brighter this year than the myriad of Indonesian startups that have been stealing the attention of global industry giants like Tencent, Expedia, and Tim Draper from Draper Associates who invested in the early days of Tesla, Baidu, and Skype.

The country has produced three startups that classify as a ‘unicorn’, a company valued at more than $1 billion. They are Traveloka, Tokopedia and Go-Jek.

The first is valued at $2 billion after a $350 million investment from Expedia in July, and both Tokopedia and Go-Jek also are worth around $1 billion and $3 billion respectively.

Where’s all the money coming from?

Attracting the Chinese investors

In a short span of four years time from 2012 to 2016, Indonesia has seen 31 times growth of investment value from $44 million to $1.4 billion. During 8 months in this year alone, this value has grown more than two times to $3 billion driven by later-stage investments.

Indonesia startups investment

The staggering growth has AT Kearney predicting the ecosystem could attract more investment than the oil and gas industry — which contributed $23.7 billion or 3.3% of the country’s GDP last year.

“Due to the massive growth, the value of startup investments in Indonesia may surpass the nation’s oil and gas investment which was $5 billion in 2016,” said AT Kearney partner, Alessandro Gazzini.

From all of the investment raised by Indonesian startups since 2012, ecommerce received the biggest chunk of gold taking 58% of the total investment value.

Transport and fintech quickly follow behind with 38% and 2% respectively.

Indonesia startups investment

Indonesia has also become a hotbed for the expansion of Chinese companies as the country sees a growing interest from Chinese investors this year.

94% of the startups investment in the country during 2017 have involved Chinese investors, up from only 2% last year. Two of the infamous Chinese BAT, Alibaba and Tencent, are raising stake in Indonesia by investing in Tokopedia and Go-Jek respectively.

Meanwhile, JD.com diversified its portfolios with investment in Traveloka making Indonesia the official battleground for Chinese companies to fight their proxy war.

Indonesia startups investment

The involvement of Chinese investors in Indonesia is something that the government has encouraged across all sectors. Indonesia’s Investment Coordinating has even set up a special China desk to attract more investors.

With the country still at a nascent digital stage, there is no precise measurement to find out the country’s true potential until company’s try but as the famed venture capitalist Tim Draper said about Indonesia, “it is a great place to be”.

Is it possible to share everything?

Umbrellas? Molisan, E Umbrella, OTO
Basketballs? Zhulegeqiu
Power banks? Meituan-Dianping, Xiaodian, Jiedian
Concrete? Duola
Bicycles? Ofo, Mobike

Above are a few examples of China’s recent headline startups that seem to believe so. They’re banking on a collaborative economy in order to build sustainable businesses.

“Ridesharing, apartment/home lending, peer-to-peer lending, reselling, coworking, talent-sharing, etc. The sharing economy or collaborative economy, is taking off in all sorts of niches.”Forbes

Cars and homes made sense, not at first, but Uber and Airbnb have clearly been very successful platforms that connect users to existing resources. But these are success stories siloed in developed markets, not Southeast Asia or China.  

The basis for these models seem to be the same: consumers are willing to pay to ‘borrow’ services/products for a period of time and eventually, there is profit to be made in the distant future and companies can collect valuable user data.

Critics may be skeptical that any of these power bank or umbrella sharing startups can be successful but there has been no lack of capital backing, currently around $25 billion in total.

The sharing economy also reached a staggering 4 trillion yuan last year (USD $502 billion).

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Chinese basketball sharing startup Zhulegeqiu.

Chinese basketball sharing startup Zhulegeqiu was recently injected with a $1.4 million venture investment from Modern Capital, a Shanghai-based venture capital firm, in May. But raising capital is not a strong indicator for a good business model.

Have we not learned from the fall of “Uber for X” business model fad?

Let’s say we forget about profitability or the fact that these startups incur high costs by owning the inventory – what other factors are required to make a sharing startup tick? And is the industry conscious of the longevity of these startups suddenly popping up in China and Southeast Asia?

Trust ‘em or clean up the mess  

A share economy relies heavily on a trust system. If someone is borrowing a bicycle for a rate of 5 THB (USD $0.15) per hour, what is the likelihood a USD $300 bicycle will be returned in perfect condition or be left in a convenient location for the next rider?

Zhuang Ji, director of a social media ‘bike hunter’ group in China recently inspected 983 Ofo bikes in six cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Wuhan and Chengdu) and discovered the following:

  • 19 percent were damaged
  • 15 percent were unlocked
  • 12 percent had been stolen for private use
  • 2 percent were being ridden by children under the age of 12

Dump of broken bicycles from multiple share economy bike businesses in China.On the other hand, Umbrella sharing startup, E Umbrella, in China suffered a loss of almost all 300,000 of its umbrellas across 11 cities.

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Dump of broken bicycles from multiple share economy bike businesses in China.

Let’s do the math:

Loss → Cost of umbrellas: 300,000 x USD $8.82 (cost per umbrella) = USD $2,626,000

Gain → Customer deposit: 300,000 x USD $2.90 (customer deposit) = USD $870,000
Gain→ Raised capital: USD $ 1,470,000  

Total: minus USD $286,000

The loss isn’t too shocking when the business model relies on what Vox calls, “unpredictable weather and forgetful people”.

But founder Zhao Shuping is certain to succeed and plans to introduce 30 million more umbrellas across China by end of year. And like most of the other ‘share companies’, E Umbrella says advertising will be the main driver of revenue after announcing a partnership with ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing.

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Umbrellas waiting for users to ‘borrow’ in China.

Southeast Asia’s not ready.

Chinese bike-sharing giant Ofo recently entered Thailand by introducing its bikes to Bangkok university campuses. A brave move after competitor oBike was deemed a scam by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) soon after its launch and never took off.  

An analyst told Forbes that China’s economic downturn – roughly a slowdown from 7% to 6% real GDP – is making people less willing to purchase goods, creating opportunities for the sharing market.

The opposite can be said for the region, where the Philippines and Vietnam are propelling the region’s 5% average real GDP growth and Myanmar alone is expected to grow by more than 7% in 2017 and 2018.  

“After all these years, China is finally embracing its communist roots,” said Andy Tian, an entrepreneur and co-founder of Asia Innovations Group in Beijing. “That’s the essence of communism: communal sharing.”

“But there’s no question that it’s a bubble,” he added. “It may have roots in something valuable, but can you really share everything?”

China’s booming sharing economy is said to be attributed to a “surplus of money and shortage of good ideas” so it’s probably best not to follow in their footsteps.