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The New Retail: Lessons From China for the West

Imagine being in the middle of Times Square, surrounded by flashing lights, fast-talking vendors, street performers, live music, noisy traffic jams, and endless other distractions. Now imagine you're online and surrounded by the same energetic chaos. Welcome to China's digital marketplace, where shopping is an adventure - a fire hose of rapidly changing content, offers, products, colors, and choices. For Western shoppers accustomed to simple, transactional online buying, it's a culture shock.

The New Retail: Lessons From China for the West

China has more e-commerce activity than any country in the world today. According to China's National Bureau of Statistics, Chinese consumers spent $750bn online in 2016 - more than the US and the UK combined. That is a jaw-dropping number, but even more interesting is how differently China's digital marketplace, technology platforms, and online behaviors have evolved compared with those in Western markets. These differences provide a glimpse into the future of shopping - and offer valuable insights for companies around the globe. This article, the first in a series on the future of retail, provides an overview of e-commerce in China today and explores some of those key differences.

The Digital Revolution Goes Mobile

When Amazon and e-tailing disrupted US shopping in the 1990s, retailers and consumers alike had to rethink their deeply ingrained habits. By contrast, physical retail in China was less developed. The digital revolution coincided with the growth of disposable income and consumption. As a result, e-commerce quickly became the norm, and its development was fast-tracked to the point where China pulled ahead of the West.

China is also a pioneer in mobile commerce. Many consumers skipped the PC era entirely, going right to smartphones. This may explain why Samsung phones with larger screens took hold in China well before they did in Western markets. According to industry estimates, online purchases made with mobile phones will account for 74 percent of total e-commerce in China by 2020, compared with just 46 percent in the US.

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