Economic Impact of Online Shopping on Stores | China's Retail Industry

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24th Apr 2019 Ecommerce Reference this

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What are the economic impacts of online shopping on physical store on China’s retail industry?


China has created miracle in economic development over the past three decade. As the biggest consuming market in the world, it has acquired the leading position in the e-commerce market. In 2014, 33.5% of total retail growth in China was contributed from online sales with the amount of US$458 billion according to Kantar Retail. It was addressed No.1 in the world and higher than the second USA (US$297 billion) by US$161 billion. In the first two months of 2017, China’s online sales dramatically reached US$124.39 billion according to National Bureau of Statistics of China, which approximately accounted for 14% of total retail sales US$840.3 billion (CIW, 2017).  

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In general, e-commerce is used to be defined with 3 fundamental models, B2B (business-to-business), B2C (business-to-consumer), C2C (consumer-to-consumer), they will be realized from online shopping. China’s e-commerce market emerged in 1990s and experienced rapid growth after 2008. Alibaba can be taken as the leading representative enterprise. It founds Taobao in 2003, the biggest online shopping platform, and separated Tmall to strengthen B2C in 2012 (E-Commerce in China, 2016). In terms of B2C model, Jingdong, Suning, Dangdang were successively emerging and extremely boosted online shopping development. They currently have dominated almost 80% market share of China online shopping platform.

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Factors boosting online shopping in China

Some key factors play the crucial roles in booming online shopping market in China. First of all, it is contributed from the development of internet and mobile network, as well as smart phone penetration. Chinese consumer can visit online shopping website whenever or wherever they are. “In the first half of 2014, on average, 26% of China’s online purchases were made via its 780 million active mobile devices”. (Morgan Stanley, 2015) In addition, urbanization is expanding at an unprecedented scale along with economic growth in China. The majority of consumers are dwelling in cities. Fast-paced life style gradually influences their shopping behavior. They incline to convenient shopping even with delivery service to home rather than traditional store visit in the crowd. On the other side, traditional business model constraint physical store spreading as consumer’s expectation especially in rural or remote areas. Consequently, a certain percentage of e-shopper or e-retailer from such areas can be benefited from B2C or C2C platform.

Features of online shopping in China

Compared with traditional physical store, the online shopping is advantaged of convenience, lower price, and more choices for consumer. Chinese online shopping also has some unique features. Firstly, the online retailers are entirely online-only retailers rather than multi-channel retailers with both online and offline presence, such as Alibaba, its business model initiated from C2C with well-known platform Taobao and then strengthened B2C with separated brand Tmall. Secondly, Chinese online shoppers are mostly price sensitive users. To some degree, price difference with physical store is still the key driver for their purchasing motivation. The representative example is from Double 11 shopping day launched by Alibaba. “Retailers on Alibaba’s platforms had recorded $17.8 billion worth of gross merchandise volume in 2016 “(Ming, C.2016). Furthermore, Chinese online shopping is entering into a stage implemented with mobile especially smart-phone and promoted by diverse social medias, which is due to faster and cheaper 4G network penetration. According to Morgan Stanley report, “In the first half of 2014, on average, 26% of China’s online purchases were made via its 780 million active mobile devices.”

Economic impacts on physical store

The online shopping has definitely become unique booster for economic growth in China. Meanwhile, the hot debate of its disadvantages to traditional retail industry is significantly increasing. As pointed out by research firm Euromonito International, the worldwide store-based retailers faced in 2015 the challenge of the increasing competition from online retailing and the decrease in consumer confidence. Consequently, a large number of physical stores in various channels closed. “According to the China National Business Information Centre, in the first nine months of the year, the top 50 domestic retailers saw sales fall 1.9 per cent, representing a slowdown in growth of 2.6 per cent compared to the same period of 2015.”(Zheng, S. 2016)

The main causes for physical store collapsing can be theoretically illustrated in terms of microeconomics model. According to supply-and-demand model, no matter the quantity of a good that consumers demand, or the quantity of a good that firms supply, essentially depend on price as well as other factors such as income and cost of inputs. Consumers usually demand less of a good with higher price and more when the price is low. Oppositely, firms supply more of a good with higher price and less when the price is low. Compared with traditional retail stores, online shopping in China can precisely provide consumers more goods with lower price, which is due to following reasons.

Firstly, it is caused by lower operational cost from online retailer, such as no rent for physical store, which is mainly composed of Internet maintenance, inventory, logistic, labor. Compared with online retailers, the store rent has been an inevitable obstacle to reducing the cost of input for the traditional retailers, especially during the period of soaring house price in China. In addition, the increasing Chinese labor wages give rise to higher fixed operation cost. As a result, it is almost impossible for the physical store to drop the commodity price to be same with online shop. Otherwise, the physical store won’t survive once the profit will be eventually damaged. Furthermore, more competitors and more options online can cause more price competition even the elimination of price monopoly, which finally contribute to price advantages.

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Secondly, the weak increase of Chinese economy since 2013 had negative effects both on the GDP and export growth. “The slowdown trends can be identified within the wholesale market, manufacturing industries and commodities markets.” (KYKLO, 2016). The economic slowdown results in decrease in consuming confidence. Shoppers are increasing their favor on online commodities with lower prices than ever.

Chinese Producer Price Index (PPI) below in blue shows 

In conclusion, the factors of e-commerce revolution, together with rising operation cost from rental and labor, economic slowdown, are leading to physical stores closure.


“The e-commerce revolution has also become a dynamic engine of China’s long-awaited shift from a heavy-industry, export-oriented, semi-command economy into a consumer- and service-driven market, where private companies large and small have direct access to domestic consumers” (Morgan Stanley, 2015). Any technical changes will usually lead to mutual influence on existing practices all along. Whether or not the challenge, advantage outweighing disadvantage and vice versa, will depend on changing idea and strategy. Therefore, the attitude taken towards booming e-commerce development is very crucial for the traditional industry. To some degree, the online shopping will destroy the physical store expansion. On the other hand, it is also providing the new business model O2O (online-to-offline) to utilize. The further exploration on maximizing advantages of physical store and optimizing O2O platform are better solution for traditional retailer to get rid of dilemma. After all, there are aspects of shopping experience beyond simply obtaining goods. “A notable finding of the research was that wealthy Chinese consumers have a much lower inclination to online shopping”(Lynch, D. 2014). Such as physically touching merchandise, gorgeous and bright in-store décor, relaxing atmosphere and entertainment, emotional bond between buyer and seller, customized service for wealthy consumers. All of these are irreplaceable advantages of physical store.  

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