PARIS — Louis Vuitton has launched e-commerce in China, adding to a growing list of Western luxury brands cultivating the world’s most advanced digital market.
Vuitton joins the likes of Burberry, Gucci and Michael Kors in launching its monobrand e-commerce site in China, where digital luxury is still dominated by local giants such as Tmall and JD.com.
“This was expected and somewhat overdue — clearly a good sign that the European megabrands are finally entering the Chinese luxury digital market,” said Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas.
Chinese consumers account for one in three luxury purchases globally, and are also at the forefront of digital development, reflected by the demise of physical retail formats like hypermarkets, the broad acceptance of digital payment solutions and the high e-commerce penetration in fast-moving consumer goods.
Digital payment penetration in China is 50 times higher than in the United States, which still relies largely on plastic, Exane noted in its recent report “China Online Boom:…yet to come for Ostrich Luxury Brands.”
Yet Western luxury brands in China are still lagging behind, with only 21 of the 34 brands Exane analyzed operating their own e-commerce sites in the country. Many firms, including Hermès, Prada, Ralph Lauren and Swatch, have yet to launch their own local sites.
By comparison, 31 out of 32 brands surveyed operate an e-commerce mono-brand web site in the U.S., and 30 out of 32 in the United Kingdom, the brokerage noted.
Vuitton, which has been present in China since 1992, on Thursday activated its site, www.louisvuitton.cn, offering bags, small leather goods, shoes, accessories, watches and jewelry, luggage, writing instruments and fragrances.
The French luxury house sells men’s ready-to-wear online in a single market, the U.S., and does not offer women’s clothing on any of its e-commerce platforms.
All payments on the Chinese web site go through third-party online platform Alipay. Vuitton plans to add UnionPay and WeChat Pay soon.
Online sales are available initially in 12 cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Shenyang, Dalian, Harbin and Wuhan. Further cities will be added at a later date, the company said in a statement on Friday.
It is the 11th e-commerce market for Vuitton since it launched its first site in France in 2005. Online sales are also available in the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Italy, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Japan and Australia.
Rogerio Fujimori, analyst at RBC Capital Markets, said it was a logical move, since Chinese consumers are increasingly making luxury purchases at home, taking advantage of narrowing price differentials and Chinese government initiatives to streamline customs procedures for e-commerce.
“There is a structural trend toward repatriation in general, and within China, like in any other market, there is a shift to omnichannel, a shift to mobile,” he said. “You have the Millennial segment that is more digital-influenced, that will grow older and they’ll carry on those habits, so I think they’re adapting.”
Mario Ortelli, senior research analyst for luxury goods at Sanford C. Bernstein, said other luxury brands would follow suit. “I think that all brands will arrive online to China sooner or later,” he predicted.
The analyst said he would be looking to see how Vuitton’s product offering in China compares with its online assortment in other markets. He was also keen on feedback about the customer experience.
WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app, has become a testing ground for luxury e-commerce expansion, with Dior, Bulgari and Burberry among those early to adopt WeChat sales.
But more and more high-end brands are turning to self-operated e-commerce in response to the many fake goods that abound in the market and the desire to control the retail experience from start to finish.
Digital consultancy L2 noted that the resurgence of spending domestically in China has made the digital investment all the more pressing.
“Looking to capitalize on the market’s resurrection, luxury brands are accelerating e-commerce and social investments in China,” it said in its “Luxury China 2017” report published in May. “Still wary of Tmall and JD.com, 9 percent of luxury brands have launched direct-to-consumer e-commerce in the last year.”
While Alibaba’s Tmall is home to a number of luxury flagship stores where labels can benefit from huge traffic, the group has been accused of enabling counterfeiters on its marketplaces, especially on its consumer-to-consumer site Taobao.
Still, a few LVMH beauty brands including Fresh, Guerlain and Make Up For Ever have opened flagship stores on Tmall, and Tag Heuer launched on the platform in February.
JD is also in hot pursuit of foreign luxury brands. It has fewer names currently than Tmall but has given the fashion side of the business a big push in recent months, launching a white-glove delivery service for luxury products in June.
Vuitton’s decision to go it alone was a given, since the brand sells only through directly operated stores.
“It’s not a surprise when you think about LV, because they are very dogmatic in terms of control. This obviously reflects their priority to protect the brand, keep a consistent brand image and service level, and obviously you have all the data as well that they want to control, which is crucial,” said Fujimori.
He noted there was always a risk that Vuitton’s e-commerce site in China would cannibalize sales in its physical stores, but this was something brands must accept.
“You have to be there, online, offline, with a consistent offer and service the customer wherever he wants to buy, so that’s the cost of doing business,” he said.
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