Richard Liu is the founder and CEO of e-commerce company JD.com, China's largest retailer.
There is a huge shift happening today among Chinese consumers, and Canadian companies and brands are missing out. That may sound like bad news. In fact, it's not: It's a massive opportunity.
When most Canadians think of trade with China, they first think of Chinese manufactured goods being bought by consumers across the world. The shift they may be overlooking is the huge surge in Chinese demand for imported goods from countries around the world. Chinese consumers with more disposable income than ever before are looking for high-quality goods from countries such as Germany, Australia, Britain, the United States and, yes, Canada.
Over the past few years, there's been a huge spike in demand for imported products, particularly in categories in which safety and quality are of paramount importance. For example, fresh food, fashion, maternal and baby products are selling as fast as they can be stocked. During our recent anniversary sale, JD.com sold more than 10,000 tons of baby formula in about two weeks, most of it imported. We also sold more than 57 million cherries and a billion diapers from countries including the United States, Japan and Chile.
This is a shift I could never have foreseen while growing up in a rural area of China in the 1970s. At that time, foreign products – if there were any to be bought at all – were rare. Even as foreign products began to appear in the major cities, only recently did they become accessible to people living in smaller cities or the countryside, made possible by broad Internet access and the advent of e-commerce.
As a result, today it's as easy to buy French wine in rural Sichuan as it is in Shanghai. And imported products have been welcomed with open arms. Kitchen products from Germany, fashion from Britain, furniture from Italy and fresh milk from Australia have helped to create booms in those markets.
What about Canada?
Canadian brands have been slightly late to the game, but that just means there is pent-up demand. Chinese consumers associate Canada with a pristine environment and top-quality products. Some of the bestselling Canadian products in China currently include lobster and ice wine. But we believe the potential is enormous for everything from coats to fresh produce.
On Friday, I have the honour of hosting Governor-General David Johnston at our offices in Beijing along with other dignitaries from the Canadian government. In a world that is increasingly reliant on cross-border trade, being able to tap into rapidly growing consumer markets will be essential to the long-term success of brands and national economies.
For small and medium-sized countries, the economic benefits of reaching Chinese consumers can be enormous. And with advances in modern logistics, the ability to reach those consumers, even from the other side of the globe, are far greater than they were even a couple of years ago. For example, during the recent sale I mentioned, our customers purchased more than 200 tons of fresh beef, with Australia – a country with a population of just more than 20 million – selling the largest percentage.
The Chinese economic shift towards higher-end products creates an opening for top Canadian clothing brands, but many Canadians may be unaware of the demand for fresh food. An increasingly sophisticated Chinese consumer base is now interested in buying products that were simply not within their reach a decade ago. The difference is that now they are not only aware of foreign products, they also have the means and the channels to buy them online.
Canada is starting to get in on the act. During our recent sale, we sold four and a half million Canadian shrimp. And today, we will launch a major promotion to feature Canadian live lobsters, and we expect to sell tens of thousands – it's very likely we will sell more than 120,000 in a single day.
The opportunity for Canada is clear. The question is how to capitalize on it.
The biggest mistake I've seen international brands make is thinking that they can simply set up shop on a website and wait for a small percentage of the hundreds of millions of online shoppers to find their products. Even for brands with massive global name recognition, that might not be enough. But for high-quality brands that may not be as well known in China, a real effort must be made to build up their name.
Making sure Chinese consumers know who you are doesn't mean spending millions of dollars on marketing. It does, however, mean working with partners who know the market, and know the consumers, to help them understand the value of their brand. This is where Canadian brands have an inherent advantage: the association of Chinese consumers with Canadian quality means that they are immediately open to potentially buying new brands.
I've worked with brands from many places in the world – including Canada – who tell me how the development of the Chinese market has revolutionized their businesses. It's time for Canadians to stop thinking about China as the world's factory floor, and begin to see it as the world's greatest retail opportunity.