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  • Writer's pictureLeaf Digital

Understanding the D2C business in China

Updated: Jun 28

The Direct-to-Consumer (D2C or DTC) business model, where brands sell products directly to consumers without intermediaries, is revolutionizing global retail. By cutting out traditional middlemen, brands gain greater control over their branding, customer relationships, and data, leading to competitive pricing and personalized shopping experiences.

China’s advanced digital ecosystem and tech-savvy consumers have fueled rapid growth in the D2C model. Platforms like WeChat and Tmall integrate social commerce seamlessly, creating a fertile ground for D2C businesses. This article explores the dynamics, benefits, and challenges of the D2C model in China, illustrating its transformative impact on retail.

In essence, D2C allows brands to directly engage with consumers, gather valuable data, and offer tailored experiences. This approach is increasingly important in today’s market, where direct connections and personalized shopping are highly valued.

Text saying DTC Direct to consumer and an image of a map with a shop and a woman receiving packages through a phone

Overview of China’s D2C Market

The D2C market in China has seen remarkable growth, especially accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, the market size exceeded 63 billion yuan and is projected to reach 122 billion yuan by the end of 2024, driven by the shift towards digital channels and the preference for online shopping.

Several key consumer trends are fueling this growth. The tech-savvy Chinese population, with widespread smartphone use, supports online shopping and direct brand engagement. Platforms like WeChat and Tmall integrate social commerce, enhancing the shopping experience. Modern consumers value personalized experiences, and D2C brands leverage consumer data to offer tailored products, boosting satisfaction and loyalty. Rising trust in domestic brands, perceived as high-quality, further benefits D2C businesses. Additionally, the pandemic's focus on health and wellness drives demand for targeted products, which D2C brands can quickly supply.

These trends, combined with China's robust digital infrastructure, make the country an ideal environment for D2C market growth. Brands leveraging these trends can achieve significant success in this dynamic landscape.

Consumer Motivation for Choosing D2C Brands

Understanding what drives consumers to choose D2C brands is crucial for brands aiming to enter or expand in the market. The graph below illustrates the key motivators for customers when shopping with D2C brands.

As depicted in the graph, better prices and free delivery are the top motivators, followed by free returns and fast, convenient delivery. Consumers also appreciate bundled product deals, better all-round experiences, and access to a full product range. Exclusive products and loyalty programs are additional factors that enhance the appeal of D2C brands.

Benefits of the D2C Model

The D2C model offers numerous advantages by allowing brands to adopt a consumer-centric strategy, sell directly to consumers, and provide personalized experiences. This model enables brands to have complete control over their operations and consumer interactions, resulting in sustainable growth and market leadership.

A model showing what a D2C channel is able to
  • Pricing Control: By eliminating intermediaries, brands can set their own prices, making their products more competitive while maintaining healthy profit margins. This direct pricing strategy allows for better alignment with consumer expectations and market demands.

  • CRM and Data Ownership: Direct interaction with consumers allows brands to collect valuable data, leading to more personalized marketing efforts. Owning this data helps brands understand consumer behaviors and preferences, enabling them to tailor their offerings and improve customer satisfaction.

  • Brand Reputation Control: Without intermediaries, brands maintain consistent messaging and ensure that their values and standards are upheld across all consumer touchpoints. This consistency strengthens brand identity and trust among consumers.

  • Agile Market Navigation: The D2C approach facilitates quick adaptation to market changes and consumer demands, allowing for rapid product iterations and responsive marketing strategies. This flexibility ensures that brands remain relevant and competitive in a fast-paced market.

  • Go-to-Market at Your Own Pace: Brands can launch products when they are ready, without the constraints imposed by traditional retail schedules. This freedom supports innovation and the timely introduction of new products.

  • Building Customer Loyalty: Direct interactions with consumers help brands establish strong relationships, foster loyalty, and encourage repeat purchases. Strategies such as personalized communications, loyalty programs, and exceptional customer service play a significant role in enhancing customer loyalty.

The D2C model thus empowers brands with pricing control, data ownership, consistent branding, market agility, flexible product launches, and strong customer relationships, driving them towards sustainable growth and market leadership.

Case Study: Nike in China

Nike is a prime example of successfully utilizing the D2C model in China. By focusing on digital integration through brand-owned apps and a WeChat store, Nike directly engaged with consumers. The company provided exclusive products and personalized experiences, fostering brand loyalty. Combining online and offline channels, Nike created a seamless shopping experience, while leveraging consumer data for targeted marketing.

These strategies resulted in significant outcomes. Nike’s direct sales in China reached 133.33 billion yuan, a 14% year-on-year increase. The brand built a loyal customer base, enhanced the shopping experience, and solidified its market leadership in China’s sportswear industry. Nike's success showcases the power of a well-executed D2C strategy.

Challenges and Disadvantages of D2C

The D2C model, while beneficial, poses several challenges. Achieving visibility in a crowded online market requires significant investment in digital marketing. Without physical retail presence, D2C brands must rely heavily on online strategies to attract customers. Building trust and providing excellent customer service can be difficult without established retail partners. Consumers may hesitate to purchase from lesser-known brands due to concerns about product quality and service. Robust customer service systems, transparent communication, and reliable return policies are essential to build trust.

Managing direct orders and fulfillment logistics is another challenge. D2C brands must handle the entire supply chain, including inventory management, packaging, shipping, and returns, which requires significant investment. These concerns about logistics, fear of cannibalizing existing sales channels, and the complexity of managing direct consumer relationships often deter brands from adopting the D2C model. However, many brands successfully navigate these hurdles by leveraging technology, investing in customer relationships, and optimizing operations, underscoring the need for strategic planning and execution.

How to Start Selling D2C

To embark on a D2C journey in China, start small and gradually expand. Invest in robust e-commerce platforms like WeChat Mini Programs,, or Tmall to manage online sales efficiently. Focus on customer experience with excellent service, clear communication, easy return policies, and personalized experiences to build trust and loyalty. Use customer data for targeted marketing and tailored product offerings.

Develop a reliable logistics strategy, possibly partnering with local third-party logistics providers to manage inventory, shipping, and returns. Build a strong online presence through digital marketing strategies like WeChat advertising, Douyin marketing, and SEO to increase visibility. Continuously test different approaches and use analytics to improve operations.

Targeting customer lifetime value (CLV) at double the customer acquisition cost (CAC) ensures the long-term value of each customer outweighs acquisition costs, leading to sustainable growth and profitability. Addressing common concerns and following these steps can help brands successfully transition to a D2C model, unlocking new opportunities for growth and customer engagement.

A model showing that good direct-to-consumer economics target customer lifetime value at double the customer acquisition cost

The Future of D2C in China

The Direct-to-Consumer (D2C) model is transforming retail by allowing brands to engage directly with consumers, offering personalized experiences and competitive pricing. In China, the D2C market is thriving, driven by digital-savvy consumers and robust digital infrastructure. Key benefits include pricing control, data ownership, brand consistency, agility, and customer loyalty.

While challenges such as brand visibility, trust-building, and logistics exist, brands like Nike have shown that with strategic planning and execution, these hurdles can be overcome. For brands entering the D2C space, focusing on customer experience and leveraging digital platforms will be crucial.

In summary, the D2C model presents significant opportunities for growth and innovation in China and globally, making it a vital strategy for modern retail.

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