U.K. Companies Getting Traction with China’s Online Shoppers

In late 2013, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron met with Alibaba Group Executive Chairman Jack Ma in Shanghai during the signing of an agreement calling for the e-commerce giant to help promote British-made goods on Tmall.com, China’s largest B2C shopping website.

Today, some 14 months on, Ma met with Prince William during a U.K. marketing event in Shanghai with good news to report. Last year sales of U.K. goods on Tmall and its related Tmall Global websites grew 94 percent as an increasing number British brands opted to open up sales channels to Chinese consumers by selling online, according to Tmall. The total value of sales were not disclosed.

The sharp increase in U.K. online sales to China is all part of the plan for Ma, who says he’d like to some day see Alibaba websites reach 2 billion consumers worldwide–and trade between Europe and China is a priority. “My first market is Europe,” Ma explained during a Q&A session during the GREAT Festival of Creativity, a marketing event being held March 2-4 in Shanghai to showcase British companies and foster China-U.K. commercial relationships.

“China will have a nation of more than 200 million middle-class people in next 10 to 20 years,” Ma said. As their spending grows, “they need high quality products, good service, because I don’t see today China’s environment can have enough good quality products and services. And Europe, you have the best quality. You have the very creative products, and good healthy products and services.

“China needs you,” Ma said. “And you need China.”

And Tmall, which Alibaba positions as a relatively low-cost way for international companies to tap the China market, needs British retailers. Top U.K. companies that established virtual stores on the platform last year included fashion brands ASOS and Topshop, luxury brand Burberry, appliance maker Dyson, and shoe companies Cheaney and Church’s. Tmall today hosts more than 130 U.K. companies, most of them in the apparel, food and baby products categories.

Best-selling U.K. brands last year included Britax, which sells children’s car seats and strollers. But the company that saw the biggest sales increase last year, says Tmall, was Tangle Teezer, a maker of hair brushes said to be favored by Kate Middleton, wife of Prince William, and Victoria Beckham. The company sold some 70,000 brushes to Chinese consumers in 2014 through its Tmall virtual store, according to the website.

“My children, they know the U.K. by Harry Potter,” Ma said during the Q&A. “We think U.K. is so good at manufacturing, but today it is about creativity.”

He added that facilitating international e-commerce is essential for Alibaba’s growth. “If we want to be a global company, 50 percent of our revenues should be outside China,” he said. “Now less than 5 percent of the businesses from us are outside of China.”