How to Localise Your Ecommerce Presence Effectively in China

How to Localise Your Ecommerce Presence Effectively in China Image credit: cowardlion /

It’s absolutely vital to localise your business venture to any new market you’re trying to penetrate. Customers tend to be wary of buying from businesses that seem alien to them and they are very adept at spotting ‘accented’ businesses.

Website localisation helps your business meet local needs and expectations by aligning your offering with any local cultural factors that help consumers engage with you.

It’s not just as simple as translating your existing content into the local language. In fact, translation is the most basic requirement. You need to adapt your content to suit the tastes and preferences of your target audience and currency, payment methods, product sizing, and brand imagery to meet the local culture on its terms.

If you’re really adept at cultural transcreation, you’ll also adapt how you communicate your brand values and tone of voice.

It’s particularly important to localise your business when you’re operating in China. Consumers here are highly suspicious of buying online and localising your activities is part of providing reassurance. China is also a very unique culture and needs to be tackled on its own terms.

You should also be aware of how fast things change in China. The competitive landscape is always in flux, technology evolves at pace, and society is changing fast. Just as you think you’ve pinned the Chinese consumer down, their needs and expectations shift. You need to be nimble to operate here.

As a huge market, China is also pretty much a self-sufficient ecosystem. You need to localise your operations to account for the fact China has its own approach to social media, its own search engines and its own regulatory environment. There’s also fierce competition from thriving domestic players, particularly in the eCommerce space.

This automatically puts you at a disadvantage if you aren’t localising your presence because a local player will be able to meet the needs of local audiences if you can’t.

It’s also important to take a regional approach. China is a huge market and the different parts of this country have very different needs and expectations. Breaking the PRC down into regions also helps new entrants focus their efforts as they tackle demographic segments with relevant messaging and products rather than the market in its entirety.

Language issues

China’s language and writing system bring its own challenges. Depending on which part of China you engage with, you may need to have solutions in place to handle both simplified and traditional Chinese. There are many regional dialects that you probably should be aware of and these tend to use their own unique combinations of written language styles and pronunciations.

From a language perspective, you need to localise content for the region you are engaging with. For that, you’ll need a native translator located in the specific region you’re targeting.

Remember that you’ll need to be able to communicate with customers both before and after purchase, so you’ll need a Chinese language customer service solution. This is important as it helps support a positive experience throughout the sales cycle which helps increase the volumes of positive reviews.

Customer service staff taking calls in an East Asian call centre

Localising your customer service approach should be a crucial part of your localisation strategy in order to manage the expectations of your Chinese consumers.

Reviews are highly important to the success of any business in China. You need to be able to engage with the customer in their native language in order to successfully transact with them and to embed your business there effectively.

Any good business knows you need to listen as well as talk to your customer. So, you also need to be able to hear what your customer is saying in any region in which you operate. Implementing a system that handles feedback from customers and making adjustments to your product, operations and marketing approach to address this will allow you to achieve long-term success.

From a technical perspective, you’ll also need a localised search engine optimisation strategy based on knowledge of how your customers are behaving online. Baidu, rather than Google, is the most popular search engine in mainland China so conducting keyword research using Baidu and optimising your Chinese site for popular queries can help you increase your rankings and traffic from search.

READ MORE: How to Plan an Effective International SEO Strategy

There are a few technical things to be aware of. For example, Chinese consumers tend to be mobile-first and Baidu claims to be able to handle indexing of websites using responsive design and recommends using the same set of URLs across both desktop and mobile.

However, many webmasters have found that Baidu seems to index separate mobile sites more efficiently. So, your approach to design and whether to have a separate mobile site need to be carefully considered and tested locally.

Adapting to the regulatory environment

China is also a unique regulatory environment and your business needs to be alert to potential pitfalls associated with doing business here. Localising your operations in China is all part of protecting yourself and your intellectual property against any specific local threats.

There’s a laborious bureaucratic process for obtaining the appropriate rights and permits to operate. There are specific rules about how products can be made, sold, used and disposed of. Intellectual property rights are notoriously tricky in this market.

Ecommerce businesses in PRC are obliged to abide by some requirements that are unique to this market. Comprehensive personal information protection laws have recently been introduced to curtail China’s powerful internet giants such as Alibaba and Tencent.

Operators are now obliged to monitor online activities and report irregularities to the authorities. They’re also meant to store live streaming videos of online transaction activities for at least three years. There are tight restrictions on foreign investment in social media and internet platforms, so foreign companies may not be affected directly by the rule changes.

International brands that have entered into joint ventures with China-backed companies may be affected. You’ll need to get advice that’s specific to the type of operations you are planning.

Be aware that Chinese consumers are increasingly concerned about their data privacy, so managing your data privacy approach isn’t just a case of meeting the regulations – you also need to reassure your customers.

It’s important to be very transparent about what you plan to do with any data you do gather, and make sure that consumers feel they can trust you. Measures to reassure customers include having an identifiable local presence, such as an office address, and possibly named employees, as well as social proof in the form of customer reviews about your business. These types of measures can help customers feel more confident.

Other challenges

China also offers a unique set of challenges in other areas, particularly a shortage of skilled and experienced talent. You’ll probably find it tricky to resource all your roles properly, and turnover tends to be high as other companies lure away workers with the right skills and experience.

It can be challenging to recruit if you don’t have a network of personal contacts there – social media networks such as 51job, WeChat and Chitu are good options for new entrants to the market trying to resource.

You won’t find many non-Chinese workers here either – China has some of the lowest rates of migrants of any country in the world. That’s particularly true outside major cities. In theory, this means you can expect a workforce that’s unusually culturally homogenous compared to a workplace in a multicultural environment such as London or New York.

In practice, you may find a noticeable cultural difference between two workplaces in different regions of China, and you may find some differences within your workforce if it’s composed of people from different parts of China.

You will almost definitely need some language capabilities to recruit resources in China, so it’s worth finding a recruitment partner that can help with this. Be aware that recruitment practices in China can be hair-raisingly problematic. It’s no longer as common to specify ‘men only’ on job adverts but recruitment companies will commonly sift out female candidates irrespective of this.

There’s also significant ageism which you may need to fight against to get the candidates you want. It’s not common practice to get references, and it can be tricky to contact a candidate’s previous employers. Remember there are also strict rules and regulations employers need to follow in this market.

Brits who spend significant periods of time in China are often struck by how quickly deliveries happen here. Alibaba often gets goods delivered to customers in China faster than a takeaway. We can learn a lot from China’s speed and efficiency of order fulfilment. If you’re planning to operate in China you need to adjust your logistics to match local expectations, which are highly demanding.

You may find managing a supply chain to be uniquely challenging here. This was true before the global pandemic but things have been unusually disrupted by the coronavirus and it’s thought the disruptive effect may continue for a considerable period of time.

Even before the period when a single coronavirus case could shut down a port, supply chains were struggling to keep up with booming growth. It’s very difficult for firms to manage the quality across the supply chain network, with bad practices and fraud a constant concern.

Foreign companies that try to operate in China may find themselves excluded by the hard-to-pin-down interconnected nature of companies in the supply chain. Many businesses are owned or influenced by the major local players or by the state, which can make it very hard for incomers to get a foothold. It’s often hard to identify the ownership of a company in the supply chain but you should always assume that they are influenced by the state in some way.

A hostile environment

China is a hugely exciting market with many opportunities but it’s important to be aware that the environment can be pretty hostile to non-Chinese companies. Although the country is theoretically open to foreign investors, the bureaucratic system is geared to protect domestic players.

There are tricky bureaucratic hoops foreign providers must jump through, and there are often consumer backlashes against foreign brands that are perceived as stepping out of line.

China is constantly in a state of political tension with the US over this protectionism, and there’s always a risk of a trade war over this or something smaller. A recent spat between China and Australia over steel exports is affecting Australian wine exports.

By virtue of its emerging market nature, China is somewhat lacking in regulations. This picture is changing very quickly. One example is the very significant regulation of consumer privacy that was recently implemented. It’s a good example of how quickly things can change, leaving operators scrambling to adjust their practices.

Change can happen fast in the regulation of areas such as the environment, the financial sector, labour and property. That’s part of the reason why you need to fully engage in the Chinese market in the hope of seeing the change before it lands.

It’s difficult to talk about China without sounding alarmist. There remains significant opportunity here despite the many pitfalls. Ultimately, China isn’t a market to be approached lightly and to succeed here you need to be immersed in the culture and approach customers on their own terms.

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