(Bloomberg View)—About a decade ago, eBay Inc. made a legendary retreat from the Chinese auction business in the face of growing local competition. It was a defeat so humiliating that it became a business school case study. Since then, however, the Chinese e-commerce market has changed drastically—and so has eBay. As the online marketplace makes its return to the mainland, it may be at the forefront of an important trend in online trade.
EBay recently announced that it’s partnering with Ningbo, a major port and manufacturing hub, to help boost the city’s e-commerce with the rest of the world. That’s a farsighted move. In 2016, Chinese shoppers made a whopping $86 billion in online purchases from vendors in other countries. Globally, such trade was just as healthy, adding up to $300 billion in 2015 and growing at nearly 25% a year—faster than domestic e-commerce. At a time when globalization otherwise seems to be in retreat, companies taking advantage of this kind of trade are looking like the future of retail.
As eBay has figured out, the phenomenon revolves around China. Ningbo’s e-commerce pilot zone is one of more than a dozen recently established by the Chinese government. Companies operating in these areas can get several benefits, including expedited imports and tax breaks. More crucially, they can set up bonded warehouses to store imported goods for quick dispatch to customers, thereby reducing shipping times by as much as 80%.
That’s much appreciated by Chinese shoppers, who have long sought out foreign alternatives to unsafe local products. In the late 2000s, after repeated scandals over contaminated infant formula, Chinese parents bought up foreign brands in such quantities that they created shortages overseas. (If you’ve ever encountered tins of baby formula at a duty-free shop, it’s thanks to those scandals.) Now e-commerce is making such products far more accessible: As of 2015, China’s legal imported formula market was worth $2.5 billion annually.
A growing demand for luxury is also contributing to the trend. One recent survey from McKinsey & Co. found that 50% of Chinese consumers “now seek the best and most expensive product” when they shop. Last year, those shoppers purchased $5 billion worth of goods online from South Korea alone, with luxury items such as cosmetics, clothing and accessories topping the list. Although there’s local competition in all those categories, foreign brands are still widely perceived to be superior—and cross-border e-commerce has become the easiest way to buy them.
Outside China, meanwhile, it’s bargains—not luxuries—that are driving this trade. San Francisco-based Wish.com, an app-based marketplace that has built a multibillion-dollar business on the insight that U.S. consumers will buy low-quality products directly from China—and then wait forever for them to ship—so long as the stuff is cheap. Wish’s hugely popular app offers an endless stream of such goods. In the market for a pair of suede men’s oxford shoes? If you don’t mind waiting until the spring equinox, they’re scrolling by for just $6.95.
EBay shoppers aren’t strangers to this kind of deal. They’ve long used to the platform to snap up cheap foreign goods, from squirt guns to chrome-plated muffler silencers. With the Ningbo partnership, eBay is hoping to improve this process by training local workers to help manufacturers meet the demands of overseas customers. It’s a big bet that cross-border online commerce will keep growing in the years ahead, even as international trade stagnates and protectionism rises.
That trend won’t benefit everyone, of course. It will surely take a toll on traditional retailers. And bricks-and-mortar shops that target bargain-minded customers will probably be especially vulnerable. Wish, for one, has been upfront about its plans to compete with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., No. 4 in the Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide. For consumers, though, that kind of competition is a good thing. It means international borders are no longer an impediment to shopping—or to getting a good deal.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.Favorite