The e-commerce market in China is the largest and fastest-growing in the world. With its tech-savvy and mobile-first consumers, a massive middle class, and a love for foreign brands, it presents a significant opportunity for companies looking to expand globally. Despite this, not all global brands have been successful in China, including one of the biggest and most recognizable names in e-commerce – Amazon.
Amazon arrived in China through its $75 million acquisition of Joyo.com in 2004, an online book and media seller. The company was optimistic about its chances, given its domestic success in North America, where net sales had more than doubled from 2004 to 2008.
The company also launched Amazon Prime in 2005. Joyo was rebranded as Amazon China in 2011, and the company hoped to take advantage of China’s e-commerce market.
However, Amazon’s assumption that its domestic success would translate to the Chinese market was a lesson in overconfidence. At the time of Amazon’s arrival, the e-commerce market in China was in its infancy, with only a few players, including eBay, Alibaba, JD(Jingdong), and Joyo.
Initially, Amazon was seen as a platform for Chinese consumers to trust for authentic products, both domestic and foreign. The company also bet on its full suite of e-reader and tablet products, but regulatory approval from three different government agencies was required, causing years of delays and valuable time lost.
Between 2011 and 2012, Amazon held a little over 15% of the market share. However, by the end of 2019, that number had plummeted to less than 1%. Alibaba, through its team at Taobao and JD.com, another rival, began to expand aggressively, partnering with brands to bring foreign goods onto their platform.
This eroded Amazon’s unique proposition, and the two competitors became trusted platforms for Chinese consumers to purchase a wide range of products.
Amazon’s failure was, for the most part, a gradual ordeal, and the company managed a 15-year tenure in China. The assumption was that a global conglomerate like Amazon would fit right into the $2 trillion e-commerce segment in China.
However, the reality was that the market was already saturated and exceptionally competitive. Alibaba and JD.com were two of the largest e-commerce players in China, and their longstanding presence allowed them to make informed business decisions that understood the Chinese consumer better.
One example of this is Singles Day, a huge day for e-commerce companies in China that happens every year on November 11th. Alibaba, JD, and other domestic e-commerce players are aggressive in their marketing around this event, but Amazon has not taken a similar role, and its lack of advertising has hurt its business in China.
The price wars in China meant that Amazon’s competitive pricing was no longer a significant advantage, and the company’s consumer experience, including selection, payment options, and delivery times, lagged behind its competitors.
Alibaba’s exclusive payment system, Alipay, has existed in China since 2004 and is both convenient and favored by consumers. Amazon, on the other hand, charged for delivery, and its delivery times were slower than its competitors.
In China, consumers value speed and convenience, and Amazon was not able to match the level of service provided by its competitors.
Amazon’s failure in China serves as a cautionary tale for companies looking to expand globally. Overconfidence in the ability to transfer competitive advantages from one market to another can lead to significant challenges, especially in a market as competitive and saturated as China’s e-commerce segment.
Understanding the local market and the needs and preferences of consumers is key to success.