One of every three physical books sold in China last year was purchased on Tmall, according to the Alibaba Group-owned B2C online marketplace, with Millennials driving the bulk of those sales.
In a report on China’s reading habits released last week, Tmall said it had sold 1 billion physical books last year, the equivalent of a third of all books in the retail market. Tmall found that about 80% of the platform’s book-buyers were born after 1980, the year at which the Millennial generation began.
“Tmall has become a first port of call for many Chinese readers, with publishers increasingly turning to the site to make their new book debuts,” said Zhang Wei, head of the books and publications unit at Tmall (who is different from the president of Alibaba Pictures). Currently, about 3,000 book merchants and 400 major publishers have digital storefronts on the site, he said.
The report pulled analytics from Tmall, as well as Alibaba’s Taobao, second-hand goods marketplace Idle Fish and online publishing unit Alibaba Literature to capture a broad picture of China’s book-sales market. Last year, nearly 30 million people purchased books on Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms for the first time, with Alibaba users purchasing an average of 5.5 books each, up one book from 2017.
The strongest growth came from Millennials and Gen Z shoppers born after 1990, Tmall said. The same demographic was also more open to reading on digital devices, comprising 46% of the users that prefer e-reading. Since launching six months ago, the Tmall Reader app sold over 25 million e-books, capitalizing on the surge among China’s readers to choose pixels over pages.
According to the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication, 2017 saw the percentage of Chinese readers using digital devices rise to 73%, its ninth straight year of growth and an increase from 68% in 2016. Also in 2017, the overall Chinese book market jumped 14.6% year-over-year to RMB 80.3 billion ($11.8 billion), driven mainly by online booksellers, which saw sales growth of 30%, research firm OpenBook reported. Offline booksellers saw sales growth of 2.3% that year, according to OpenBook.
Digitizing Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores
In an attempt to cater to China’s young and tech-savvy bookworms, Tmall has also been experimenting with ways to enhance offline book-shopping experiences.
Last year, it upgraded two physical bookstores in Hangzhou and Shanghai with New Retail technologies, ranging from facial recognition-powered, cashierless payment options to “smart shelves” that automatically display introductions and recommend related titles when shoppers take a book off the shelf.
To opt into the facial-recognition payment service, customers can choose to scan a QR code upon entering the store via the Tmall or Alipay mobile apps. All they have to do is simply pick up the books they want and walk out.
“Building staff-less bookstores is only the beginning, as we explore the future of bookstores,” Zhang said. “We want to bring the hundreds of millions of book reviews and related merchandise on Tmall to bookstores, to make customer experiences even more dynamic.”
Alibaba also plans to help brick-and-mortar booksellers leverage consumer analytics to improve management and product selection, he said.