Skip to main content
E-commerce in China vs. the West: Exploring contrasts and differences

E-commerce in China vs. the West: Exploring contrasts and differences.

Written on . By .

In China, certainly more than in any other country, e-commerce has revolutionised how people purchase goods and services. Transcending geographical boundaries and cultural differences, initially, the Western world was at the forefront of this digital transformation, with companies like Amazon, eBay, and others. However, in recent times, China has rapidly emerged as a powerhouse in the e-commerce landscape, boasting some of the world’s largest online retail platforms.

However, despite sharing the same digital realm, the e-commerce ecosystems in China and the West exhibit distinct characteristics shaped by cultural, regulatory, and technological factors.

Below, we will examine some of these contrasts.

Market landscape

In the West, e-commerce giants like Amazon, eBay, and Walmart dominate the market and have done so for many years. These platforms offer a wide range of products, emphasising convenience, customer service, and fast delivery. The market is highly competitive, focusing on user experience and brand loyalty. China’s e-commerce market is led by platforms such as Alibaba’s Tmall and Taobao, JD.com and Pinduoduo. These platforms not only facilitate transactions but also provide entertainment and social networking features, blurring the lines between e-commerce and social media. Additionally, mobile commerce plays a significant role in making purchases, with a large portion of transactions conducted via smartphones. As of today, roughly about 38.3% of purchases are made via smartphones.

Mobile dominance

While mobile shopping is prevalent in the West, for example, mobile purchases are estimated to make up 44.6% of total US retail e-commerce sales in 2024.

Despite this, desktop and laptop usage still hold significant importance. Consumers often use multiple devices to browse and purchase products online, and although mobile apps offered by e-commerce platforms enhance the shopping experience, in general, they are not as deeply integrated into daily life as in China.

As for China, mobile commerce is deeply ingrained and driven by the widespread adoption of smartphones and super apps like WeChat and Alipay. These platforms offer a seamless shopping experience, allowing users to browse, pay, and communicate with sellers within a single app. Live streaming and short-video platforms further leverage mobile technology to drive e-commerce sales through interactive content.

These mobile purchases are made for bigger and more complex products like televisions or furniture, but also for everyday operations such as ordering lunch while in the office, an everyday occurrence in companies in China.

Social commerce

As for social commerce, it is first important to define this expression: Social commerce (a subset of e-commerce) is the use of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to market and sell products and services.

Social commerce is gaining traction in the West, with platforms like Instagram and Facebook introducing shopping features. Influencer marketing plays a significant role, with influencers promoting products to their followers. However, social commerce is still in its early stages when compared to China. Influencers are people who are regarded as experts within their field and have a steady following. People trust their opinions, and thus, their endorsements carry a considerable amount of weight, which translates into purchases and exchanges of money.

In the case of China, social commerce is deeply integrated into the fabric of Chinese e-commerce platforms. Just to provide you with some numbers, in 2021, social commerce accounted for 14.3 percent of the total online retail sales in China, and the share is expected to grow to 17.1 percent in 2025. In comparison, the penetration rate of social commerce in the United States only ranged to 4.1 percent in 2021.

Live streaming e-commerce, where influencers showcase products in real-time, has become immensely popular, generating billions in sales annually. Consumers trust recommendations from their favourite influencers, driving impulse purchases and fostering a sense of community around shopping. They also regard their endorsements as more genuine and transparent than traditional advertising, which can, at times, be cold and opaque.

Regulatory environment

The e-commerce landscape in the West is governed by stringent regulations aimed at protecting consumer rights, ensuring data privacy, and promoting fair competition. Companies must comply with laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in the United States.

China’s e-commerce sector operates within a different regulatory framework, influenced by the government’s emphasis on social stability and economic growth. Platforms must adhere to regulations governing data privacy, counterfeit goods, and monopolistic practices. The government plays an active role in regulating the sector, often intervening to address market distortions or enforce compliance. Some of these regulations include the Cybersecurity Law (CSL), Data Security Law (DSL), and Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL).

Also, unlike other countries, China has an E-commerce law enacted to safeguard the lawful rights and interests of all parties to e-commerce, regulate its conduct, maintain the market order and promote the sustainable development of e-commerce.

Payment methods

In the west, credit and debit cards are the primary payment methods in e-commerce, supplemented by digital wallets like PayPal and Apple Pay. While alternative payment methods exist, they are not as widely adopted as in China.

As for the Chinese payment landscape, mobile payment platforms like Alipay and WeChat Pay dominate the Chinese e-commerce scene, offering convenient and secure payment options. QR code payments are ubiquitous and accepted everywhere, from street vendors to luxury boutiques (even street beggars have them!). Cash transactions are becoming increasingly rare, especially in urban areas, and the dematerialisation of cash is a national reality.

Conclusion

We believe e-commerce in China and the West may share the same digital infrastructure, but unique cultural, regulatory, and technological factors shape them.

While the West emphasises convenience, user experience, and regulatory compliance, China’s e-commerce, despite being an increasingly regulated ecosystem, thrives on mobile dominance, social commerce and government intervention.

Understanding these differences is essential for businesses seeking to navigate the complexities of the global e-commerce landscape and tap into the immense potential of both markets. A Western product cannot succeed in China without using e-commerce as a tool and its local marketing and selling tendencies.

As technology evolves and consumer behaviours shift, the e-commerce landscapes in China and the West will undoubtedly undergo further transformations, presenting new opportunities and challenges for businesses worldwide.

We at Acclime, will be following all developments in E-commerce regulations, tendencies, and statistics. Stay informed about these updates by following us on WeChat (@Acclime凯晋), subscribing to our newsletter, or reaching out to our offices located in China and across Asia.


Contact our teams for expert support and further information about China’s economy.

Russel Brown OBE, Vice Chairman, Partner, r.brown@acclime.com
Robin Tabbers, Partner, r.tabbers@acclime.com
Maxime Van ‘t Klooster, Partner, m.vantklooster@acclime.com


About Acclime.

Acclime China helps established multinational companies and startups start and operate their business in China. By seamlessly navigating our clients through the complexities of the Chinese laws and bureaucracy, we allow them to reclaim valuable time and fully focus on growing and developing their business.

Written by
More from the author(s)