China: Grocery Markets Are Thriving Online and In Real Life

The Chinese grocery retail market is one of contrasts.

Shoppers have flocked online in the past several years, and the $41B Chinese e-grocery market is the world’s largest by a wide margin. Retailers of all sizes have taken note and are making big bets in this arena.

Despite the explosive growth of e-commerce, brick & mortar grocery stores still play an integral role. While over half of Chinese households do buy groceries online, a full two-thirds still say that going to the grocery store is a fun, engaging experience.

I experienced this thriving retail culture during my recent visit to Shenzhen & Hong Kong, and have four insights to share about the dynamic Chinese market.

#1:  Traditional outlets dominate, but global retailers are making strides.

The Chinese grocery market is highly fragmented, with the top ten retailers accounting for less than 7% of the volume. Domestic players have leveraged their nuanced understanding of local consumers to outperform global competitors in recent years, but the multinationals are making strides to catch up.

Larger retailers are succeeding by finding ways to make the western supermarket format uniquely Chinese. They are introducing live food offerings similar to those available in traditional Chinese wet markets.

 Store: RT Mart

Store: RT Mart

 Store: RT Mart

Store: RT Mart

Many are developing new food and beverage innovations tailored to local palates and events, such as Chinese New Year.

Others are even re-thinking their footprints and building flagship stores in large shopping districts so they can be integrated into the daily retail experience. 

 Store: Vanguard Photo Credit: IGD Retail

Store: Vanguard
Photo Credit: IGD Retail

#2:  Hypermarkets are struggling while small formats are flourishing.

Convenience formats are booming in large part due to their ability attract young, middle-class shoppers who are increasingly affluent and time-pressed. Big box retailers who have experienced slow growth in larger formats are testing smaller ones, like Easy Carrefour and Tesco Express.

  Store: Tesco Express   Photo Credit: IGD Retail

Store: Tesco Express
Photo Credit: IGD Retail

 Global and regional players alike are succeeding by adding western concepts like ready-to-eat and carryout options to these smaller formats.

 Store: Metro My Mart Photo Credit: IGD Retail

Store: Metro My Mart
Photo Credit: IGD Retail

And, in a nod to the multi-channel landscape, some small format stores like Metro’s My Mart are attracting shoppers by serving as collection points for online orders.

 Store: Metro My Mart Photo Credit: IGD Retail

Store: Metro My Mart
Photo Credit: IGD Retail

#3:  Retailers are using “store within a store” concepts to expand offerings.

Categories like wine, cheese, bakeries and coffee are relatively new in China. Savvy retailers are building these out as destination areas within larger stores, in the process attracting a growing segment of middle-class shoppers.

Others, like CRV’s Ole, are creating specialized sections of imported products – another relative newcomer on the Chinese grocery landscape – often grouped by country or cuisine type.

#4:  A focus on food safety creates loyal shoppers.

China has been hit by a wave of safety scandals in recent years, and grocery retailers are finding success by reassuring customers about the provenance of their products.

Large players like Carrefour are leveraging their sourcing capabilities to expand private label offerings that carry a safe halo and are marketing that to their advantage.

Startups like Farm Direct are finding success via vertical ownership of farms and retail outlets, which allows confidence in the safety of their products through control of the entire growth/distribution/retail process. 

 Store: Farm Direct

Store: Farm Direct

Tech-savvy competitors like previously mentioned MyMarket offer systems like Star Farm, a food traceability system featuring QR codes that allow consumers to track a product’s journey from source to shelf.

 Store: Metro My Mart Photo Credit: IGD Retail

Store: Metro My Mart
Photo Credit: IGD Retail

The Takeaway

In my travels, a recurring theme is that a deep understanding of local consumers and their tastes engenders success.

As I’ve written before, brands can be global in their values but need to localize quickly to maintain relevance in a global world.