We published the first version of this article at the beginning of 2020, not too long after China’s new eCommerce Law went into effect in 2019, and of all the major cross-border eCommerce platforms finished their transition to full compliance. Since then, we’ve updated this post yearly, tracking the changes that happen in this exciting market. This is the latest revision, updated for 2023.
Today, the China market is open—perhaps more than ever—to foreign brands wanting to sell cross-border. Overseas shopping, especially cross-border eCommerce, is developing well. The recovery after the epidemic has greatly boosted consumer confidence and consumption upgrades have also promoted the growth of cross-border eCommerce users and consumer demand for overseas shopping. According to NetEase’s Research Center, total cross-border commerce volume is expected to reach 15.7 trillion yuan in 2022.
International brands continue to accelerate their deployment in China’s cross-border market. So for brands, how to choose a cross-border e-commerce platform now, and which platforms have more advantages?
According to iiMedia data, the share of independent brand websites (eCommerce websites operated independently) doubled from 10% in 2016 to 20% in 2020. With the focus on private domain traffic and data, we can expect the share of brand e-commerce outside the major platforms to grow further. This is not surprising, as independently operated stores have many advantages—special operating models like automatic renewal, flexible functionality and e-commerce policies, and full access to customer data. This is especially attractive for brands with private domain traffic.
Having said that, 80% of the market is still occupied by eCommerce platforms, and they remain the main platforms for foreign brands to sell their goods, providing a particularly competitive way for international brands to sell in China.
So how should brands choose between the many different platforms that cater to cross-border selling in China? To answer that, we list the top 5 Chinese cross-border eCommerce platforms in 2023.
*Updated in February 2023, the following ranking data comes from the “China Cross-border Import Retail E-commerce Market Quarterly Monitoring Report” released by Econometrics at the end of 2022. The market share is the cross-border import retail eCommerce market transaction share.
1. Tmall Global
Opened in 2014, Tmall Global is the largest cross-border marketplace for foreign brands. It is operated by Chinese eCommerce giant Alibaba – the company behind such platforms as Taobao, Lazada, and the Chinese national version of TMall.
Unlike TMall, Tmall Global is not open to purely domestic mainland companies (the platform only cooperates with overseas companies that have a physical presence abroad). They must have an overseas registered trademark, and —as TMall puts it— “a stellar reputation and business standing abroad”.
This way, Tmall Global positions itself as a platform for world’s top brands selling high quality goods. The platform aims to cater to China’s high-end consumers, satiate their increasing demands for top-level items, and harness their high spending power.
Customers, who are mostly middle class young women (up to 35 y.o.), living in large cities, know what they’re getting on Tmall Global: direct access to premium foreign brands and their catalogs.
Kaola is a relatively new player in the cross-border eCommerce market, and it may look like an odd one out. To begin with, it wasn’t an eCommerce marketplace per se when it started – Kaola would operate by itself, buying and importing goods wholesale and selling them to customers.
Lately, however, Kaola opened its virtual doors to sellers, becoming a proper marketplace. The volume of such brand-operated stores is still much smaller than Kaola’s own operations.
In the autumn of 2019 Alibaba (owner of TMall and TMall Global), bought Kaola, making the Tmall Global + Kaola team the runaway leader of Chinese cross-border eCommerce.
3. JD Worldwide
Never one to let Alibaba snap up an eCommerce space without competing for a slice for themselves, Tencent set up JD Worldwide to compete in the cross-border market. Launched in 2015, JD Worldwide has succeeded by leveraging the large existing user base of JD.com – the second-largest Chinese marketplace.
JD Worldwide features almost 10 million SKUs from nearly 20,000 brands. Product categories run the gamut from nutrition and healthcare to home appliances and car-related items.
JD Worldwide is divided into multiple national and regional ‘pavilions’. The global cross-border eCommerce platform currently has a strong export focus. To facilitate this approach, it has established presences in Russia and Indonesia to support export merchants there.
4. VIP International
VIP Shop is China’s third biggest B2C marketplace and leading flash-sale eCommerce platform, and this sales model largely carries over to its cross-border branch.
Launched in 2014, VIP International ensures 100% authenticity for products sold on the platform. Similar to the way Kaola operated in the first years, VIP International is also self-operated, it uses direct overseas procurement alongside its own wing of delivery partners. Because of this, it is able to deliver some goods from its urban warehouses within 12 hours.
Lately, however, there are signs that cross-border eCommerce is losing its high-priority position for VIP Shop – the link to the international site is no longer featured on the main website.
* For more information on how to enter China’s market through JD Global, you can check out VIP International.
5. Amazon Global
Market share: 2.5%
Amazon overseas shopping gives customers the opportunity to purchase international brands and imported goods on Amazon and is committed to providing consumers with a more convenient, efficient, and reliable overseas shopping experience. Through this platform, Chinese consumers can purchase overseas products directly from Amazon’s global market, covering various categories such as clothing, shoes, maternal and infant products, electronic products, and household items. Consumers can place orders directly on China’s Amazon overseas shopping platform and have them delivered to their homes through international logistics. At the same time, the platform supports a variety of payment methods, including Alipay, WeChat Pay, credit cards, etc.
Amazon has been trying to enter the Chinese market for many years, but due to fierce market competition and the rise of local e-commerce companies, Amazon officially announced in 2019 that it would reorganize its online retail business in China. However, Chinese consumers can still purchase overseas products through Amazon’s global shopping platform.
Xiaohongshu doesn’t even have a proper desktop version – users are instructed to install the app.
Market share: 2.2%
XiaoHongShu (literally “little red book”) was founded in 2013 as a product review platform. Following years of rapid growth in popularity, it is now transformed into what can be called a “Chinese Instagram”. Similar to Instagram, social posts are based on pictures or short videos, the majority of the user base is quite young (70% are below 30) and female (up to 80%).
An abundance of insightful customer-written product reviews earned XiaoHongShu a reputation as a reliable source of information for a variety of products. Early on, XiaoHongShu added eCommerce functionality to the platform, becoming one of the prominent domestic platforms. While it is still smaller than giants like TMall or JD, its very young audience and unique social-media-based model have a lot of potential (especially for fashion and luxury brands) that can be realized in upcoming years.
The international division of XiaoHongShu is called RED Mall and would also be a great place to sell for brands targeting younger, dynamic audiences.
Forging Your Own Path
The above five are the most successful Chinese cross-border eCommerce platforms as of 2023. These all represent exciting opportunities for companies wishing to sell their goods cross-border to China.
However, going back to what we started this article with, with the popularity of such platforms, it’s also very possible for your products to get lost among the huge variety of available goods. For companies wanting a bit more control over product presentation, promotion, and performance, a tantalizing option can be to set up one’s own specialized platform. This does mean a lot more of your own research, preparation, development, and operations – but it will pay off in the end through greater visibility, flexibility, and overall control of your operations.
TMO Group has considerable experience and expertise in this area and has successfully guided multiple major brands to cross-border eCommerce success in China. If you’re interested in seeing what TMO can do for you and your brand, check out our page or get in touch with us! China Cross-border eCommerce Solutions