Locked Down by Coronavirus, China’s Shoppers Ramp Up Online Purchases

Locked Down by Coronavirus, China’s Shoppers Ramp Up Online Purchases

Bain analysis of exclusive data from Tmall shows dramatic shifts for many consumer goods.

With coronavirus travel restrictions in place and many cities locked down, the bar, restaurant and entertainment scene in China has essentially been dead during the outbreak. Likewise, shopping malls, hypermarkets and supermarkets have cut opening hours and are seeing very low traffic.

At the same time, however, consumer demand has prompted many traditional offline stores to launch online-to-offline (O2O) and delivery services—a sign that the COVID-19 epidemic may dramatically accelerate the ongoing move of consumer goods sales to online channels.

For a first-hand view of this trend, Bain partnered with Alibaba Tmall to analyze online shopping from the Lunar New Year (January 25) to February 6—the period that roughly coincided with peaking public awareness and increasing government quarantines and travel restrictions, which began with the suspension of travel in and out of the city of Wuhan on January 23.

Using e-commerce sales data provided exclusively to Bain by Alibaba Tmall, we divided fast-moving consumer goods into four categories and measured their performance against the comparable holiday period from last year, with the same methodology used in Bain’s 2019 China Online Shopper Report, published jointly with Alibaba Tmall.

The first chart above shows dramatic shifts: the gross merchandise value (GMV) of daily essentials and short-term stock-ups (such as instant food and home hygiene products), which traditionally have low online penetration, increased 50% to 150% from last year. Shortages also caused a buying rush in some cases. A few products, such as infant food, that already have high online penetration, nearly doubled in GMV.

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Discretionary purchases—spirits, beer, dairy products—remained about the same. But GMV for social, nonessential products, many of which have relatively high online penetration (such as cosmetics, skin care and luxury products), declined substantially.

For the most part, Bain expects that postepidemic consumption recovery to follow patterns similar to the 2002–2003 SARS outbreak. That’s likely to mean a steep sales decline for medicines and home hygiene products, a quick return to normal consumption for food and cosmetics, and a surge for apparel, cigarettes and some other items.

The author thanks Elle Yang for her contribution to this analysis.

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