What can we learn from China about retail in the Benelux ?

Is China unique or is China first ?  It is an intriguing country. The scale of China combined with its fast pace of change has transformed China into the second largest economy of the world. In the past it was only considered as the factory of the world  based on low labor costs and high work ethics. Today China is thought leader in many sectors, amongst which e-commerce.


During last month’s retailhunt with RetailDetail in China we tried to discover what retail in the Benelux can learn from China. While  European retailers and food manufacturers are still doubting if e-commerce will become important in the food market, China is already selling 18% of groceries nation-wide through e-commerce portals and the pace of growth is only picking up. 50% of these sales are fresh foods. The projections for the e-commerce share in 2022 is 35%. More than 95% of e-commerce is delivered at home, mostly free, sometimes at a small fee.  In my previous blog, I discussed the devastating impact that home-delivery growth has on the store profitability. In this article, I will elaborate on this based on the Chinese reality.


The Chinese megatrends

The 5 megatrends in China are: urbanization, a growing but time-stretched middleclass, digital ubiquity, an increasing interest in health & wellbeing (especially food safety is a big concern) and finally the search for ultra-convenience. The impact for retail is in line with the global consensus that food retail should evolve towards more convenience and more in-shop experience.

Benelux retailers focus on in-store experience and encourage grocery pick-up in order to use their existing retail infrastructure, while collection costs are paid for by the consumer. Chinese retailers are fully surfing on the consumer’s desire for ultra-convenience by building a strong home-delivery eco-system. Alibaba and Tencent have rapidly grown and consolidated the e-commerce space, holding together more than 80% market share. All other existing players have to choose sides. Wallmart, for instance, has taken a 10% share in Tencent and is now  fully integrated in Tencent’s WeChat app.


Afbeelding met persoon, gebouw, buiten, weg

Automatisch gegenereerde beschrijving


Free home-delivery within 24 hours is current practice throughout China, also in rural areas. In the big cities, 30 minutes or 1-hour delivery has become the norm. Millions of drivers, using normal bikes or electrical motor bikes, are speeding through the streets to pick-up or deliver the orders. Tencent crowdsources more than 5 million drivers. It uses a dynamic pricing tool to balance supply and demand of drivers and has a strict rating system based on % delivery on time.  E-commerce is growing at a blasting pace and is projected to grow to 32% in 2022, almost doubling in 4 years. In some areas, these levels have already been reached (in the big cities).



O2O (on-line to off-line and off-line to on-line) has become a major strategic challenge for all retailers. Some even call it OMO or online merged with offline.  Tencent and Alibaba try to exploit the opportunities of full integration. Everybody experiments with shops as picking centers. In some bigger stores Walmart has separated a picking zone used for the 1000 fastest movers in order to stimulate picking efficiency. Hema offers home delivery as an extra service to its offline shoppers. All retailers try to obtain a maximum amount of data of the off-line shopping behavior by using visual recognition, instore-tracking and electronic payment through Alipay and WeChat. Digital messages and coupons are sent to the shopper during their shopping trip. The Chinese shopper really feels pampered.     


The convenience store is no longer convenient

The strong presence of fast and cheap home-delivery has a surprising consequence. Convenience store are less and less seen as convenient. A Chinese shopper in the city can get his or her products faster through home-delivery compared to actually going to a neighborhood store. On top of that, e-commerce prices are often 5 to 10% cheaper. Chinese convenience stores are quickly adapting and are becoming “food for now” stores expanding their prepared meals offer, including home-delivered meals.


The flagship store, the key remaining role for stores in China ?

Shifting business to e-commerce in big cities becomes margin enhancing! 

China uses a classification of its cities in tiers. There are 4 tier-1 cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen), 9 tier-2 and 13 tier-3 cities. These 23 cities cover 85% of the buying power of China. Real estate prices, especially in good locations, are rising fast. High street locations can drive rental costs easily above a ratio of 10% of turnover, impacting store profitability heavily. The store needs to become a flagship , a marketing investment to build the brand through experience and to build consumer trust. The alternative is to relocate to a cheaper area and risking lower traffic. Shifting business to e-commerce in big cities becomes margin enhancing!


What can we learn from China about the future retail architecture in the Benelux ?

Physical stores remain important. But their number and their role will need to change. A limited amount of experience-based flagships stores are important. Other stores need to focus on convenience and/or combine with a picking hub.   


Ultra-convenience is also a big trend in Belgium and the Netherlands. E-commerce has already started to grow in foods and beverages, also in fresh. An e-commerce share of 15% to 20% by 2025 is a scenario to take into account. China reached 18% from almost zero in less than 10 years. Today in the Benelux, home-delivery is only a small part of e-commerce (<10%). In China, 95% of e-commerce is home-delivery, much more in line with consumer needs.


In China, home delivery is already affordable for retailers, because the delivery cost has descended below € 1 per order. In big cities e-commerce is even margin accretive versus shops. Salaries are higher in the Benelux but also the average basket sizes are much higher. Efficient routings should further reduce the delivery cost to affordable levels. Population density on the axes Brussel-Antwerp and Rotterdam-Amsterdam-Utrecht are comparable to China and therefore an enabler.


Already a small shift of turnover towards home-delivery  impact store profitability enormously. Profitability in retail is rather low. The net operating margin in the Benelux is around 3% on average. Colruyt and Ahold have the highest margins, while other players have lower or even negative margins.