E-commerce is changing fabric of China's clothing industry

Updated: Nov 12, 2020 Print

Sellers at a clothing distribution center in the eastern Chinese city of Changshu garner a daily turnover of about 400 million yuan ($59.6 million), just by talking to their phone screens.

As large as about 500 football pitches, Changshu Garments Town is home to 35 wholesale clothing markets where hundreds of thousands of people hustle around some 30,000 clothing stores every day.

Distributors in the markets, however, are no longer satisfied with traditional, in-person transactions, jumping on the bandwagon of e-commerce livestreaming and making waves in one of the biggest clothing distribution centers in East China.

Among them, Yan Ke is one of the most successful livestreamers, attracting more than 60,000 viewers and achieving a business turnover of about 400,000 yuan in less than 30 minutes.

Busy livestreamers

For about 15 hours a day, Yan tries on different clothes, rubs the material and spins around, introducing every detail, as tens of thousands of viewers watch her every move.

"Honey, don't hesitate to order this fashionable and textured suit jacket, very suitable for this season. We have black, white and khaki colors, and if you are not sure about the size, contact our customer service. Don't miss it. It's absolutely fabulous," says Yan, who is now a veteran on Taobao Live, the livestreaming channel of China's e-commerce giant Alibaba.

As one of the top 10 livestreamers on Taobao Live last year, the 33-year-old notched up nearly 700 million yuan in sales.

The outbreak of COVID-19, which forced many people to shift their shopping online, has reshaped the e-commerce industry in China, bringing livestreaming to the center stage, whereas Yan has been using it since as early as 2017, a year after the launch of Taobao Live, when her online clothing shop was struggling.

Yan's entrepreneurial story dates back to 2011 when she went to Changshu with her husband Wu Can, who had just resigned from a clerical job, before venturing into e-commerce on Taobao in 2012.

It was a tough start. They nearly went bankrupt running the online store. "At the most difficult time, we owed a debt of about 3 million yuan," says Wu. "Our online shop experienced wax and wane as more people tried to take a share of the spoils."

"We couldn't even pay for our child's milk powder at that time," recalls Wu.

In 2016, livestreaming sales started sprouting up around the country, and the couple decided to give it a shot, hosting their first livestream on Taobao in 2017.

"We sold over 50 pieces and made about 2,000 yuan in the first show, which encouraged us to continue the business," says Yan.

Yan says that the most difficult part of presenting a show was to overcome her fear and embarrassment. "I have to force myself to face the camera and speak loudly, even though there is no audience."

To improve her performance, Yan watched a large number of popular livestreaming shows on Taobao and subscribed to fashion magazines to follow the latest trends.

Their persistence paid off. More than 2.2 million fans now follow their livestreams. One such show can bring in as much as 1.5 million yuan in sales.

Promising advances

Yan represents a new way of shopping in the country, that is sweeping across the retail industry in a boom of "live commerce", the convergence of e-commerce and livestreaming.

A report released by the China Internet Network Information Center notes that e-commerce livestreaming has become the country's fastest-growing internet application in the first half of 2020.

With over 400,000 livestreamers active in the industry, China saw over 10 million livestreaming marketing activities in the first half of this year, attracting over 50 billion views, says the report.

The turnover of China's livestreaming is expected to hit 900 billion yuan by the end of this year. As a revolution of e-commerce, the new model has added fresh vitality to the livestreaming industry with an upgraded user experience that could lead to higher user retention.

More clothing business owners in the Changshu Garments Town have engaged in livestreaming shows, dreaming of becoming the next Yan Ke.

"Honey, today I will show you different kinds of clothes in vogue," says Pan Lixia, a 42-year-old businesswoman in Changshu, who made her livestreaming debut in June.

Owner of four brick-and-mortar clothing shops, Pan started her clothing business in the garments town when she was 18. "Sales volume of my stores has continued to decline for four years, significantly affected by online stores and e-commerce livestreaming."

Like every newcomer in this emerging field, Pan felt nervous and always repeated similar words when promoting her clothes.

Pan failed to sell any pieces in her first show although she endeavored to display and describe why the clothes were worth buying during that three-hour session.

"Just give me some time; I have the confidence that I can do well," Pan says.

Pan took a training course organized by the management committee of the garments town to learn more livestreaming skills, and the teacher suggested that she should show more energy and not repeat lines like a robot.

The committee established a specialized service office in 2017, providing training courses for traditional vendors and owners of physical stores. So far, it has cultivated more than 3,000 livestreamers.

A modern logistics base is under construction near the garments town, according to Wan Xiaojun, head of the management committee. "We need to build a platform for young entrepreneurs to realize their dreams and digitalization is the trend of the garments town."

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