In the past 10 years, the combination of State policies towards high-tech investment, buoyant startup scene and unique consumer appetite for new technologies has lead China to become a world leader in daily use of digital solutions. The Covid19 crisis further accelerated digitalization in a number of in sectors and it may be indicative of what will happen in Western countries in a next stage too.
More specifically, boosted by the lockdown and the need to find new ways of doing business with consumers, a number of sectors turned to livestreaming e-commerce, a new form of retail which was already well developed in the beauty and personal care field and really took-off in other sectors thanks to the specific benefits offered in such a crisis situation.
Healthcare is a sector that was obviously under enormous pressure during the pandemic. While online consultations and digital scheduling of appointments were already becoming commonplace in China, the coronavirus outbreak has seen a sharp rise in the use of digital platforms and an explosion of online doctor consultations. JD Health, one of the leading providers of such services, has seen its online daily consultations jump from 10,000 in January to 150,000 in March. Baidu Health, another leading healthcare platform, now has over 100,000 doctors from across China offering online consultations around the clock. The platform was made accessible free of charge to those with pneumonia symptoms during the pandemic and had handled over 55 million enquiries by the end of April. While the virus started to spread across the world after the China wave, several Chinese platforms started offering free online coronavirus consultations in English to people abroad. A good way to develop their client base to prepare a global expansion while also sending a message about China’s willingness to contribute to fighting the consequences of the pandemic abroad.
Also during the coronavirus crisis, the city of Shanghai launched 11 internet hospitals affiliated to offline public hospitals. An interesting sign that the handling of patients is on its way to becoming a combination of online and offline approaches.
In the field of retail fashion, live-streaming was a way to make up for the closure of stores during the pandemic. Labelhood is a platform for emerging fashion designers in China which has a boutique in Beijing and another one in the Shanghai French concession. While these brick and mortar locations remained closed during several weeks founder Tasha Liu launched a WeChat store so that people could shop through the app, and started offering life-streaming in order to show potential clients new arrivals from designers’ collections. In addition, WeChat video calls were offered as a way to develop a bespoke one-on-one approach with customers, one that is very suitable to the tailored, personal dimension of designer brands’ business. The Covid 19 crisis has been an accelerator in embracing digital, one that has pushed retailers and brands to adopt a new way to talk to customers, created a new type of personalized connection… without the unique “offline” benefit of being able to touch fabrics though. It also provided boutiques with access to consumers well beyond the city, spreading business opportunities across new geographies and population segments, enlarging their client base at a the very time it was threatened to shrink dramatically.
Live-streaming also helped farmers* across the country survive the pandemic by completely transforming their business model. Last February the nationwide lockdown left growers of flowers, fruits and vegetables with no logistics and therefore no access for their products to stores and markets. A number of these producers, who had traditionally had no contact with end clients, started using live-streaming to reach consumers. With just a mobile phone they could broadcast directly from their farm, tour their facilities, show-off products and answer questions from potential buyers. On the other side of the country, in urban areas, consumers stuck at home were eager to shop online. Live-streaming, combined with the shipping services of e-commerce giants JD.com and Alibaba, helped the two ends meet and completely redesign the market. Consumers could receive at their doors products that were no longer available in stores, and farmers benefited from a new stream of revenue. On Taobao Rural Livestreaming, one of the main platforms for that type of broadcasting, about 2000 rural participants now generate a monthly income of over RMB 10,000 i.e eight times the rural average. By connecting producers directly to consumers, live-streaming has changed the way business is done, created a new bond between producers and consumers, and has been a catalyst for local development.
Beyond these examples of how digital is changing business in a broad range of sectors, the development of 5G will soon generate new opportunities and changes as it will promote even more interactive content and seamless e-commerce features via a dramatic increase in internet speeds. As China is already more advanced in this field than most Western countries, global brands will have to quickly grasp the new interactive features of the China market to stay relevant in the years to come.
*this section is based on an article published by MIT Technology Review on May 6, 2020 “Live-streaming helped China’s farmers survive the pademic. It’s here to stay”.
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