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Australian e-retailers brace for a golden age in China

September 5, 2016 07:00 AM
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With geographical proximity and strategies to put the Asia market as their first priority, Australian health food brands like Chemist Warehouse and Sigma Pharmaceuticals have become favored choices among China’s online consumers.

This Australian influx is having a noticeable impact on such dominant U.S. health-focused brands as GNC and Puritan’s Pride. Those U.S. brands often appear in top spots when Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and JD.com Inc. post sales numbers, but Australian brands, like Blackmores, are emerging as powerful players and becoming the top brands in some health products categories for online shoppers.  

Vitamins and health products brand Blackmores illustrates how Australian companies are growing online sales in China. The Sydney-based brand is among the five best-selling brands in the health food category on China’s popular e-commerce sites, according to recent sales data from Alibaba and JD.com.

“China is an important part of our growth strategy,” Christine Holgate, Blackmores Ltd.’s CEO said in a statement. “It has become the fastest growing market for us and accounts for 40% of our sales.” Although Blackmores also sells through stores in China, most of its sales there are online. 

Whether because of a lack of local availability or fears about authenticity, more than half of Chinese consumers go online to shop with overseas retailers for health and nutritional products. “The question is not ‘should we be in China?,’ but ‘can we afford not to be in China?’” Andrew Parker, head of Asia Pacific at consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers said in a recent seminar. “China is the largest e-commerce market in the world and its consumers are one of the most mobile-centric and digitally engaged populations. There are risks, but the greatest risk may well be doing nothing at all,” he said.

E-commerce offers a way for Australian brands looking to tap the growing Chinese middle class without heavy up-front investment. Blackmores entered China in 2012 and began to operate its virtual store on Tmall.com in the same year. The company also sells through other popular online shopping sites in China, including JD.com, No. 1 in the Internet Retailer 2016 China 500, Kaola.com and Vip.com.

Thanks in part to its rapidly growing online business in China, Blackmores’ sales for the second half of 2015 grew 65% to $341.4 million year over year, and profit increased 165%. The company said if it excluded sales to Chinese consumers, revenue increased just 14%.

Blackmores is actively advertising to Chinese consumers. Tennis grand slam champion Li Na works as a “celebrity ambassador” for Blackmores, helping the brand create buzz in China.

To introduce more Australian brands into China, Alibaba, the largest e-commerce platform operator in the country, will open an office in Australia this year, Alibaba president Jack Ma said in June during Alibaba’s investor day. More than 1,000 Australian brands or retailers have launched their brand stores on Tmall.com, according to Alibaba.  

“Australia was ranked the fifth top-selling country on last year’s Singles’ Day sales on Tmall Global. 1,300 Australian brands sell on Tmall and Tmall Global combined, and 80% had entered China for the first time,” Maggie Zhou, Alibaba’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand tells Internet Retailer. Singles’ Day, a 24-hours sales event held Nov. 11, originated in China with Alibaba and has become the biggest online shopping day in the world. In 2015, sales hit $14.32 billion on online marketplaces operated by Alibaba.

“Australia is well known for is its production of food, cosmetics and healthcare products, but its consumer pool is small, potentially limiting the growth of these businesses,” Zhou says. “China, on the other hand, comprises a significant consumer market for Australian e-retailers, with approximately 225 million middle-class households.”  

Many Australian e-retailers, like Sigma Pharmaceuticals, enter China by launching Chinese-language versions of their e-commerce sites. The latest example is health products retailer Pharmacy 4 Less, which in November started to sell into China via its online division, Cn.royyoungchemist.com.au. Pharmacy 4 Less has more than 40 pharmacy stores in Australia.

Roy Young Chemist’s Chinese site experienced more than 700% sales growth after launching, according to the company. “The growth is now starting to normalize, however we are still seeing a very healthy 10-20% growth month on month. I believe that there is still a lot of growth to be captured,” says Rania Awad, general manager e-commerce for Pharmacy 4 Less. “We view the China market as a very large market for health and beauty products. We also like the proximity of China as compared to the U.S. or Europe, which are a lot farther away and logistically more challenging.”

Rob Young Chemist selected Chinese cross-border e-commerce service provider Azoya Group to handle challenges which include understanding the local culture and handling cross-border logistics. “Partnering up with Azoya has helped us navigate these challenges. We have also had to expand our warehousing capabilities and increase the numbers in our workforce,” she says.  

Based in Shenzhen, Azoya helps overseas retailers build their Chinese e-commerce sites with marketing, customer services and logistics support in a profit-sharing model. “Our priority is to enable Chinese consumers to shop the overseas brands directly online and to be reassured that they will receive authentic products from the brand,” says Don Zhao, co-founder and executive director at Azoya. “Our e-commerce services enable overseas retailers to exploit the China market with lower operational risks and make faster progress.”    

Pharmacy 4 Less also began selling into China through its second Chinese site, Cn.pharmacy4less.com.au, this month, aiming to offer more products to meet growing demands from China.  

 

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