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Online to Offline (O2O) in China

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E-commerce has grown internationally over the past few years; China is one of the countries with the fastest e-commerce growing market, Alibaba has become the largest business-to-business (B2B) platform in the world. Tmall is the largest business-to-customer (B2C) website in Asia, with more than 90 billion RMB in revenue recorded on Nov 11, 2015(China’s “Singles Day”). Despite their success, return rates have also grown accordingly. Compared with offline physical shops purchases, online shops experience a higher rate of refunds and exchanges. The lack of the buyer experience is perhaps the biggest weakness of e-commerce, that is the main reason why the online to offline (O2O) business strategy was created.

O2O is a business model where companies attract potential buyers to their physical stores through online marketing strategies. These strategies often consist in in-store pick up of items purchased online as well as offering the option of buying or experiencing the items directly at the store.

Fast moving consumer goods do not really have to offer the buyer experience since they are expected to sell quickly and for a low price, this is the main reason why O2O does not really suit this field. Durable consumer goods, like clothing, seem to have a huge potential, they are probably the best candidates for the implementation of O2. Let us say, for instance, that you would like to buy a new camera, you compare all the features of several models online, experience them in physical shops and then after you finally decided the model, you would simply place order online for a reasonable price. Everything fits perfectly. There has been an ongoing talk about this for years, Manufacturers know this, they would like to see this, but unfortunately results are not ideal.

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Why is it so difficult for O2O commerce to evolve? Who has the advantages to start implementing an O2O business model? Should large Manufacturers, like those who own multiple shops, implement it? Should offline chain shops do it? Logistics companies? Online platforms? These are questions that have to be discussed. Let us talk about these one by one.

Most Manufacturers with lots of physical shops operate offline, they usually carry out the traditional business scheme; they manage shops and focus resources on shops rather than the end users. Very few manufacturers have their own Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system for consumers, and even when they do, what happens to the employees at the shops? Sales volumes usually measure commissions and performance for employees, however with an O2O business model it makes it harder for manufacturers to keep track of their physical shops and employees performance. No companies have solutions for this, so employees in physical shops resist O2O, so for manufactures O2O is harder to be executed.

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In the case of offline chain shops, employees manage products rather than sell them directly, and they have CRM systems for most of the consumers. The real problems these companies face is related to online traffic, do their offline consumers also have the habit of buying online? Even if they do, do they know the chain shops started an online business? Despite the attractiveness of implementing a fully online business, they are still more likely to succeed with a O2O business model. Suning is a real life example of this, with thousands of offline physical shops of household appliances, also expanding its categories one store at a time, and being the third in the Chinese E-commerce field. Their market share is a little more than 3%, far behind the first two companies, O2O is the trend but there is still a long way to go.

What about Logistics companies? Logistics means warehouses and more detailed consumer data; this is the main advantage here. SF-express started Hi-ke in 2014; the goal was to steal market shares from online platforms like Tmall and JD with SF-express’ logistics. This resulted in a lack of experience for consumers and complex order placing procedures.

Online platforms should also implement O2O for one reason, to keep the current e-commerce market share. Tmall and JD just started this; we will have to wait to see how it works out. Their weakness is still the lack of physical shop operation experiences.

O2O needs someone who can successfully implement the business model, in China currently there has been no one who had manage to do this, it seems that what the market needs is a pioneer in this field, future is bright, and the market gap is there, let us wait and see who will rise up.

This article was edited by Andres Arroyo Olson from 2Open.

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