Those who doubt the power of e-commerce to drive business in China should have a word with home-improvement retailer B&Q.
After pivoting and re-pivoting on strategy for more than a decade in the world’s most-populous market, the European DIY company had a banner year in 2016, turning its first profit after nine years of loss in China, due largely to business driven through its new storefront on Alibaba’s Tmall platform launched in late 2015.
“To be frank, we are already a little bit late to the Internet,” said Shi Jun, Director of Strategy at B&Q China. “Each offline store can typically only cover the adjoining 10 kilometers, or 20 kilometers, at most. Customers outside the coverage area aren’t aware of the store at all. Tmall helps us reach many more customers, particularly the internet-savvy, post-80’s generation.”
B&Q vastly simplified and standardized its offerings online, locking in three different price points for different customer segments it was able to identify through Tmall. Overall, though, it was the successful marriage of its online and offline operations – what Alibaba has referred to as “new retail” – behind B&Q’s reversal of fortune.
B&Q is not alone in tapping the new retail model, which reimagines the relationship between consumers, merchandise and retail space by leveraging mobile Internet and big data. To date, Tmall’s “home” business unit that covers home appliances and home improvement verticals has partnered with 500 brands, connecting online consumers with some 60,000 offline stores to facilitate omnichannel sales. For example, after integrating their offline business with Tmall storefronts, Suofeiya, a Chinese wardrobe and furniture maker, and Japanese paint brand Nippon, each saw total sales rise 40 percent in 2016 from a year earlier, while wooden door manufacturer TATA’s sales increased 50 percent.
B&Q’s operations were much different in 1999, when it opened shop in Shanghai. In addition to selling home building supplies, its business model relied on customized home decoration services offered through physical stores. Customers would meet a sales manager and designer, select the genre, design and type of building materials for the desired home improvement and then get a price quote.
That was the start of an on-again, off-again relationship with Chinese consumers, who wanted attractive DIY prices, but preferred that somebody else do the actual home-improvement for them, leaving them as little work to do as possible. With a reliance on physical stores for sales, B&Q’s growth was hindered by geography.
Traffic and sales in physical stores started to dwindle from 2007, and B&Q shut down some 20 stores. In late 2014, B&Q parent, Kingfisher, sold a 70 percent share of its China branch to a local partner, Chinese supermarket operator Wumart Stores Inc.
Seeking a new way forward, the company hopped onto Tmall, offering a fairly standardized RMB 699-per-square-meter ($9.40-per-square-foot) home-decoration solution for young people on a tight budget. For RMB 999-per-square-meter ($13.50-per-square-foot), customers can select from four home-decoration genres: modern, European, American country-style and modern Chinese. At the top end, a RMB 1799-per-square-meter ($24.20-per-square-foot) solution targets more affluent, tech-savvy customers, providing advanced decoration options, including rooms equipped with smart devices.
B&Q’s online storefront simplifies the ordering process and expands its reach to more customers and cities in China. More importantly, though, it is a first step toward greater efficiency, drawing in customers virtually to begin their selections and then driving them to brick-and-mortar stores to customize and complete the sale.
Customers view photos online, make their choices and pay a deposit as low as one yuan. Then, they either head to nearby physical stores to fine-tune their purchases and complete payment, or someone from a store makes a house call. B&Q also offers Tmall shoppers an installment plan, and allows customers to oversee the construction via the Tmall app. Customers can leave reviews online after construction or answer questions from potential customers who are curious about B&Q’s service.
“We transformed from a relatively heavy business model to a light model. Online and offline channels play their roles, respectively. We communicate and acquire customers online, while offering physical experiences offline to reinforce customers’ confidence to shop,” said Shi. “There is no boundary between online and offline.”
B&Q’s Tmall storefront also puts forward a new business model for the company. Margins are tighter, but volume is higher. And, at least in its first year, the new model is working.
Last year, B&Q sold over 10,000 sets of the RMB-999 design solution. Online sales of home-decoration services hit RMB 600 million ($87 million), roughly 30 percent of its total home decoration business in China. That helped the company’s overall business in China to grow more than 20%, and B&Q notched its first-ever annual profit in the country since 2007.
B&Q is now exploring new business, such as renovating bathrooms, kitchens and kids’ rooms to meet the growing sales of secondhand apartments in China that need restoration. In addition, the company aims to serve consumers in smaller tier-two and tier-three cities who discover the brand online by opening 200-square-meter “studios” where homeowners can connect with B&Q designers who will handle their remodeling projects. The company also operates a Tmall store selling home-building supplies and plans to open physical mini-stores to display merchandise.
The company said it will further upgrade and integrate its systems, including marketing, ordering, merchandise, service, pricing, payment and supply chain between online and offline channels to ensure customers enjoy the same service, no matter where they come from.
“Who knows what percentage of our sales will come from the Internet by the end of the year. You see the speed of the Internet, and it leaves us much space to imagine,” said Shi.