A Masked Blessing: SARS Drives Online Shopping Boom In China

Beijing: | Updated: May 23 2003, 05:30am hrs
Fear of catching the flu-like SARS virus in crowded buses and packed shops has powered a huge boom in online shopping in China, retailers said on Thursday. Internet sales had risen as much as 60 per cent at firms pitching joke books, antiseptic cleaners or DVDs to keep the housebound clean and entertained during the virus-induced panic.

Were ecstatic to have such great sales during a low season, a spokesman at www.joyo.com, which sold goods worth 100 million yuan ($12 million) last year, said. This is of course due to SARS. Sales rose an annual 60 per cent in April, he said, and daily sales averaged about 500,000 yuan in April and May. Sales were expected to rise 80 per cent to 180 million yuan this year. He said cartoons, alcohol-soaked cotton buds and books were the most popular items on the Web site, known for cheap products.

Retailers say the threat of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) helped drive more of the countrys nearly 60 million Web surfers, the second largest in the world, onto their sites. TAbout three in five surfers have visited online shopping sites, the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC) said, but the market has been hampered by a lack of credit card use and preferences for seeing products before buying. Estimates for online sales vary widely, up to $1.45 billion, which is tiny compared to the $96 billion expected by the US Internet retail industry in 2003. Analysts say there are about 1,000 Web sites selling products in China.

Chewing Gum
CNNIC says the market is set to grow, drawing shoppers in larger cities with low prices, speedy delivery and convenience. Cash was the most popular payment method.

Caroline Straathof, spokeswoman for Chinese Internet media firm Sohu.com, said customers were not just buying books and movies anymore. Web site sales now account for about eight per cent of the firms revenue.

The behaviour and attitude of the Chinese shopper is changing, developing more like mature e-commerce markets, she said. Were moving on from the usual items to chewing gum, shampoo and even iced tea mix. Ms Straathof said the firms online orders were up, but declined to give details.

German media giant Bertelsmann said sales at its Chinese online business rose 35 per cent in April as shoppers stayed home. The number of visitors to its Web site www.bol.com.cn jumped 20 per cent in April from the same period last year, spokeswoman Rachel Ji said.

At www.dangdang.com, April sales of music, movies and books more than doubled from the year-ago period and May sales were expected to triple, said marketing supervisor Yao Xin.