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HOME NRI JOURNAL Changes in the Chinese Distribution and Retail Industry: From Focus on Expansion to Pursuit of Quality


Innovation magazine that generates hints for the future


Changes in the Chinese Distribution and Retail Industry: From Focus on Expansion to Pursuit of Quality

Liu Fang, NRI Shanghai
Yutaka Go, ICT Media and Service Industry Consulting Department



May 29, 2019

In the distribution and retail sectors of China, big online operators such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (BAT) were more likely than traditional retailers (department stores, supermarkets, etc.) to take the lead in developing a variety of business models by collecting a large amount of customer data and leveraging the latest technologies. This trend is now showing signs of a change. We asked Nomura Research Institute’s Liu Fang and Yutaka Go about the changes in China’s distribution and retail industry.

Current Status of China’s Distribution and Retail Industry

The Chinese consumer market had enjoyed double-digit growth rates so far, but in 2018, the growth rate fell to 9%. However, this is largely due to the impact of purchase restrictions on automobiles; food, cosmetics, and daily necessities sectors are still maintaining double-digit growth. The growth is expected to continue in the future as the Chinese government has taken several steps to expand the consumer market, such as reducing personal income tax and tariffs on foreign products.

The Chinese consumer market is dominated by BAT and other major online businesses, and not by traditional retailers like department stores and supermarkets. These companies have been making use of extensive customer data and the latest technologies to take the lead in developing various business models in the distribution and retail sectors, and to expand their business areas.
However, this has resulted in intense competition even in immature business models such as unmanned convenience stores and bike-sharing services.

Signs of Changes in the Chinese Distribution and Retail Industry

Under these circumstances, there are three signs of changes that NRI is focusing on, in its outlook for the distribution and retail industry in China.

Sign 1: Development of New Business Planning, SPA and Service Industry

Chinese products have an image of appealing to the customers because of their cheap prices, but Chinese consumers are increasingly demanding good quality products. Recently, Chinese brands have grown rapidly in a variety of industries including apparel, sundries, cosmetics, and beverages, by focusing on the quality of materials and design, and pursuing value addition over and above the price.

For example, take the company Purcotton, which manufactures and sells cotton products. Originally an OEM of medical supplies, they began developing products under their own brand to leverage the appeal of newly developed nonwoven fabrics in order to increase profitability. The company was struggling in the beginning, but then they focused on sales through T-Mall, China's largest e-commerce website. As consumer needs changed from price-oriented to quality-oriented, the company’s e-commerce and in-store sales grew stronger. Purcotton has now become a popular brand of baby products that emphasizes quality instead of low price.

The products of HEYTEA, a tea chain launched in 2017, are known for not only being tasty but also colorful and photogenic. The company already has 160 stores throughout China, and it is common for people to wait in line for more than an hour at any store. For young Chinese people, the shopping process is not limited to just buying and drinking the tea; it also involves taking pictures while standing in line as well as of the products and sharing them on social media.

Sign 2: Horizontal Expansion of E-commerce Supply Chains

Small and medium retail outlets remain the main distribution channel in provincial cities and rural regions of China. Additionally, three to four agency traders mediate products from manufacturers to consumers in a multi-step structure, resulting in higher distribution costs and higher prices for the same products in provincial cities than in large cities.

In order to solve this problem, offline companies are utilizing the supply chain network created by e-commerce companies over the past several years. Jingdong (JD), which operates the e-commerce site, provides an efficient order management system in which orders made through a mobile application are sent directly from JD's warehouse to shops. This system is mainly used by shops in rural areas and provincial cities. Alibaba, China's largest e-commerce company, has invested in companies with specialized supply chains, such as alcoholic beverages. Alibaba is strengthening its supply chain by providing its own data analysis and digital technology, in addition to expanding the order management system similar to that of JD. Since Alibaba's own supply chain is not as strong as, it aims to further strengthen it by investing in other companies.

Sign 3: Alliances and M&A with Overseas Manufacturers

Overseas investments and M&A by Chinese companies have continued to increase under the government's Belt and Road Initiative. Recently, such cases are increasing in the healthcare field, including the acquisition of a major Australian health food company by a Chinese powdered milk maker, and 10% investment of a Chinese insurance company in Tsumura, a Japanese herbal medicine maker.

The purpose of these investments by Chinese companies is to acquire expertise in areas such as quality control and manufacturing technology and to acquire the right to sell famous overseas brands in China. Since supply chain and manufacturer functions are indispensable for acquiring bona fide consumers, capital alliances, business alliances, and M&As with overseas companies possessing such expertise will accelerate further in the future.

Changing Approach of China's Distribution and Retail Industry from Focus on Expansion to Pursuit of Quality

Based on the above signs, we can expect a noticeable shift in the future trends of China’s distribution and retail industry, from a focus on expansion to the pursuit of quality. The construction of an ecosphere (which encompasses all businesses related to daily life, such as retail, e-commerce, services, and finance) by major online businesses will be completed. This will lead to an expansion in investment areas to strengthen the quality of products and services, and the quality of supply chains.
The Chinese distribution and retail industry, Alibaba and Tencent in particular, have accumulated consumer big data. Leveraging this strength will enable further innovation in business models in the industry and strengthen supply chains. In order to achieve this, it is essential for them to cooperate with not only Chinese companies but with overseas companies as well.
Chinese companies are attracted by the supply chain expertise cultivated by the Japanese distribution and retail industry, and the product development and manufacturing expertise cultivated by Japanese manufacturers. Thus, opportunities for strategic alliances and M&A between Japanese and Chinese companies will increase in the future.

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