Chinese ecommerce platform JD is lesser known amongst international audiences, but its mid-annual 618 shopping festival generated almost $25 billion in gross merchandise value this past June. The company has a 33% share of China’s B2C ecommerce market and generates more direct revenues than Alibaba. Google’s latest $550 million strategic investment in the company is the latest in a series of partnerships JD has orchestrated, as it seeks to challenge Alibaba and Amazon for ecommerce dominance in both China and the rest of the world.

JD’s Direct Retailing Model Gives it a Strong Competitive Advantage

JD’s business model is distinct from that of Alibaba’s in that it is a direct retailer – meaning that it purchases inventory wholesale and sells products directly to individual customers, rather than simply acting as an intermediary between buyers and sellers. Approximately 92% of its business comes from direct sales, whereas for Amazon this figure hovers around 50%.

JD stocks its own inventory in its vast proprietary network of nearly 500 warehouses across China, each of which is situated strategically close to consumers to ensure fast delivery. JD also employs an in-house delivery force of over 65,000 warehousing and delivery workers. During the 618 festival this year, JD was able to deliver 90% of its goods within two days.

This dedication to customer service requires a significant amount of capital to sustain, but JD has been able to stand out from its competitors.

JD claws its way up to a 33% market share in an industry where Alibaba was previously thought to be unbeatable.

Richard Liu, CEO of JD.com delivering goods during their ‘618’ Mid Year Sales Source: Internet

The Borderless Retail Alliance

To compete with Alibaba, JD has enlisted the help of numerous partners. In China, this includes internet giants Tencent and Baidu, in addition to its partnerships with the likes of vertical-focused ecommerce platforms Vipshop and Meili Inc. Tencent owns 18% of JD’s shares and partnered with JD to invest $864 million in China’s third largest ecommerce platform Vipshop this past December. JD made its claim to fame by selling electronics to a predominantly male user base, and such partnerships with Vipshop and Meili, both of which sell a combination of apparel and cosmetics, help the company appeal to a broader female base.

America’s largest retailer Wal-Mart owns 10% of JD’s shares and has been a strategic partner since 2016 when it first sold its ecommerce division Yihaodian to JD Google, despite having a limited presence in the China market, announced a $550 million investment in JD this past June. Both of these strategic partnerships will be key as JD prepares to expand its business overseas.

Google’s Data Will Help JD Catch Up Overseas

Ecommerce platforms such as JD spend an enormous amount of money on search ads every year, to ensure that their products show up in search results. As they grow bigger, however, internet users can go directly to ecommerce platforms to search for products, which presents a threat to Baidu’s and Google’s search ads business. Partnering with JD allows Google to hedge against this problem.

Google’s extensive ecommerce data can give JD better insights into the buying behavior of users, and JD will have a better idea of how to target users via Google’s broad ads network. This will be a significant asset as it attempts to catch up with local competitors in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the US.

Wal-Mart and JD Make the Perfect Couple

US retail giant Wal-Mart has been partners with JD since 2016 when it sold its online business Yihaodian to JD in exchange for a 5% equity stake worth $1.5 billion. That stake has since grown to 10%. In China, Wal-Mart leverages JD’s marketplace and users to sell directly to Chinese consumers online, complementing its offline business in the country. For JD, Wal-Mart is a key supplier for the JD Daojia platform, which is an on-demand delivery service that delivers groceries to customers within a one-hour time frame.

JD also sells its goods offline in Wal-Mart stores and uses them as distribution centers from which last-mile delivery can be carried out. Since JD is an online retailer without many offline retail stores, the addition of Wal-Mart’s physical locations across China is a considerable asset as it looks to expand its user base via omnichannel marketing strategies. JD is planning to expand to the US market by the end of this year, and the potential expansion of this partnership model means that JD may have a chance to catch up with Amazon, especially since the two can leverage economies of scale and source goods in bulk.

JD Dao Jia partnered with Wal-Mart on sales promotion Source: Internet

JD Goes Global

With an impressive set of partnerships under its belt, JD has the capability to challenge Alibaba and, potentially Amazon, on the global stage. JD has already set up international ecommerce site Joybuy in Spain this year and is looking to expand to Germany. JD has also launched local websites in Thailand and Indonesia under the JD brand. JD has publicly announced its intention to enter the US market by the end of 2018, with a beachhead office located in Los Angeles. The company plans to undercut its competitors and also help Chinese brands like Xiaomi expand to the US.

While it is still early stages, what is certain is that JD’s global expansion will be very interesting to watch going forward.

Written by Don Zhao, Co-founder and Executive Director of Azoya 

 

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.

It’s amazing how this highly upvoted answer (Ron Rule’s answer to What stops Walmart from beating Amazon in online shopping?) is basically proving, without the author realizing it, why Disruption Theory works. The answer takes an exceedingly narrow view of the entire retail industry and labels the pursuit of leadership in an emerging market/channel (ecommerce), which is clearly where the world is heading over the next few decades, as mere “bragging rights”.

“Disruptive innovations tend to be produced by outsiders and entrepreneurs, rather than existing market-leading companies. The business environment of market leaders does not allow them to pursue disruptive innovations when they first arise, because they are not profitable enough at first and because their development can take scarce resources away from sustaining innovations (which are needed to compete against current competition).”

(Source: Disruptive innovation – Wikipedia)

The real answer is, Amazon has already won in online shopping. It is not due to a lack of effort from competitors, which is probably too little too late.

ecommerceIQ

This quote, attributed to Jeff Bezos, sums up why:

Your margin is my opportunity.

Even with Walmart’s massive revenues and profits (compared to Amazon), it cannot compete with the juggernaut that is built by Bezos. Amazon is “not profitable” by choice. All the earnings are put back into the business, either into more capital investments or to sell loss-leading products that lock in customers or drive competitors out of business, vertical by vertical, and market by market.

The investments that Amazon has made over the first two and a half decades of its existence give it momentum such that it is tough if not impossible for any other company to catch up over the coming decades: the technology stack, the deeply integrated logistics/supply chain (they are now getting into competition with FedEx/UPS), the effective third-party seller marketplace, the customer loyalty (through Prime).

Every exponential curve runs below the linear curve in it’s infancy, that is until it suddenly crosses over, goes through the roof and hits the sky. Even though in absolute numbers Walmart is still bigger than Amazon, only one of the lines below is going up and to the right:

ecommerceIQ

On top of all this, in the last couple of years, Amazon is also getting into physical retail, with acquisition of Whole Foods and pilot of Amazon Go. Here’s a great analysis of this: Amazon’s New Customer (I highly recommend Stratechery for tech+strategy topics in general).

At this point it is more likely that Amazon will eventually beat Walmart at physical retail, than Walmart will beat Amazon at online shopping. If Walmart wants to survive till the end of this century and not go the way of Sears, Walmart must come up with a strategy that creates value in a digital, super-connected future where everyone is hooked on to the convenience and choice furnished by online shopping, but in a manner that converts their massive current investments in physical retail from liabilities to assets.

The last thing Walmart should do is to build an Amazon clone. As then, they are playing by Amazon’s rules. And nobody beats Amazon at their own game.

 

Read the original on Quora by Pararth Shah, Software Engineer at Google

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

Bitcoin is the mother of all Ponzi schemes.

It will crash and fade at some point. But on the way to its inevitable death, the journey may make many more insanely rich. This is a global high-velocity bubble, the first in which the entire world can easily participate in.

And so it could be HUGE.

But it will end in tears.

Why? The problem isn’t that Bitcoin is digital. I’m cool with digital.

I do get that paper currency is nothing more than paper printed by a government.

But suppose I started a paper currency, the Asim Dollar, and stated that I legally cannot print more than 1,000,000 Asim Dollars ever, just like the cap on Bitcoin.

The question is would anyone use, or give a value to, Asim Dollars?

If I was the first person to think of this, in amongst a group of cavemen, I might get some traction but once everyone sees others making new paper currencies, the Asim Dollar will collapse.

That applies to Bitcoin too. Bitcoin is open source so it’s damn easy to copy, and those copies can be improved on, which is what we’re seeing happening.

The new copies of Bitcoin address some of the weaknesses of Bitcoin, in particular speed of transaction and the blockchain file size.

So when they’re better where will that leave Bitcoin?

Cryptocurrencies in general also have other fundamental issues. Given they’re decentralised who do you go to if your Bitcoin suddenly disappears? No one.

And can anyone give any assurance that today’s hack of US$64m of stolen Bitcoin will not be the first of many hacks? Nope.

Further, the lack of price stability makes Bitcoin far from ideal as a currency.

The only currencies that have maintained value are ones that are backed by something like gold or ones that are backed by legislation and a government.

Bitcoin is neither.

Bitcoin is a scam. And while blockchain technology has uses, it’s massively overhyped in large part due to Bitcoin itself.

The future of money is digital. But it’s not Bitcoin…

Source: Quora, answered by Asim Qureshi, CEO LaunchPad, 5 $1-10m startups (including Jibble.io)

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