The Chinese Consumers’ Online Journey From Discovery to Purchase

The following report is the second in a series entitled “The New Retail: Lessons from China for the West” produced as a collaboration between Alibaba Group and Boston Consulting Group. To read the first installment, click here.

By Chris Biggs, Amee Chande, Liyan Chen, Erica Matthews, Pierre Mercier, Angela Wang, and Linda Zou


Much has been written about the move online by Chinese consumers and the country’s explosive growth in ecommerce. Less well understood is how Chinese shoppers use the internet—and how their buying experience differs from that of consumers in other markets.

In the West, ecommerce originally emerged as a more efficient way to shop. Today, consumers still go online to shop because it is often easier, faster, and more convenient than going to a store. Many ecommerce players optimize their platforms for efficiency by building search functions, payment features, and delivery capabilities. They want customers to shop frequently and quickly.

In contrast, ecommerce in China has been about providing a richer alternative to traditional shopping. Consumers like to spend time in a discovery-driven online world of energetic chaos where shopping is an adventure. Ecommerce players optimize their platforms for customer engagement, blurring the lines between entertainment and ecommerce as well as between online and offline commerce. Shopping is a social experience, not a solitary one. The Chinese consumer’s unique path from prepurchase to purchase holds valuable lessons for retailers in the West.

This article, the second in a series on the new retail concept, explores the differences between the buying experience of Western and Chinese consumers and provides a window into what may be the future of shopping.

Search Versus Highly Personalized Discovery

Because online shopping is often optimized for efficiency in the West, customer behavior in the prepurchase phase is mostly about searching. Consumers typically go to an online retailer, such as Amazon, or a company’s website with a specific item in mind. Category details—such as product, style, color, and size—help buyers drill down and narrow their search. The payment page is automatically filled with personal details to speed the transaction. Mission accomplished! The online shopping experience is fast, smooth, and easy. (Click on the graphic below to enlarge.)