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  • Marc Bain

The Unique Challenges of Selling Fashion in China

From a distance, China looks like a gold mine to international fashion companies. Last year, China became the biggest retail and fashion market in the world, according to estimates, and its growth isn’t even close to finished.

But connecting with Chinese shoppers often requires a very different set of tools than US and European companies use at home. At this week’s big annual conference held in New York by the National Retail Federation—a trade group representing American retailers—the fast-growing US shoemaker Allbirds and Chinese e-commerce leader Alibaba were on hand to talk about the challenges Western brands face entering China, as well as how Allbirds is meeting them.

Communicating with shoppers in China is different than elsewhere. “The media market in general in China is much more fragmented than it is in most of the rest of the world,” said Erick Haskell, president of Allbird’s international business. Much of it is done through digital platforms that may not even exist outside China, such as Weibo, WeChat, and Xiaohongshu. Allbirds had to learn what worked on each of them.

Even on big e-commerce platforms, Allbirds had to rethink its strategy. Tmall, owned by Alibaba, has served as Allbirds’ e-commerce channel in China since the three-year-old company started selling there last year. It’s the country’s largest business-to-consumer platform and an important gateway for international brands. Haskell was surprised at how much of its business happens on phones. So far, at least 95% of Allbirds’ sales on Tmall have happened over phones. In the US, by contrast, about 50% of their digital business happens on mobile.

And interacting with customers has its own idiosyncrasies. Christina Fontana, head of fashion and luxury for Europe at Tmall, said 80% of people who shop on Tmall leave feedback for the brand or other consumers. They share pictures of items they bought and post outfits wearing them. It’s a much more social ecosystem where companies need to find ways to interact with customers and not just market to them.


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