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Shoppers in China are twice as prolific online as those in the UK and US but retailers are struggling to keep up with the growing sophistication of their multi-channel purchasing behaviour, PricewaterhouseCoopers has found.

PwC’s latest global survey on the subject found that around 70 per cent of consumers in the People’s Republic shop online at least once a week, compared with 40 per cent in the US and UK and 20 per cent in the Netherlands, France and Switzerland.

The consulting giant also revealed that despite the relative immaturity of e-commerce in China, more respondents there described themselves as ‘expert’ shoppers (86 per cent) than in any other region.

This represents challenges as well as opportunities for bricks and mortar retailers, especially given that the Chinese shoppers surveyed buy around two-thirds of their clothing, footwear, books, music and films online – around double that of respondents from other countries.

Retailers have been slow to adapt to the needs of their customers and must focus on enhancing the multi-channel experience as well as basic elements such as delivery and returns and product choice, said PwC.

"The most likely scenario is that stores will serve two distinct purposes,” said Carrie Yu, PwC's retail and consumer Leader for China and Asia Pacific.

“First, they will act as showrooms, where customers come for inspiration and are able to browse and to physically interact with products. Their second purpose will be to provide a convenient transaction and collection point, where customers come to complete a journey started online.”

Chinese consumers also seem to be well ahead of the pack when it comes to using mobile and social media to make purchases. Shoppers in Hong Kong (44 per cent) and China (40 per cent) topped the list of those who follow brands through social media.

The bad news for western retailers is that across the survey respondents said they overwhelmingly favoured local brands. In China this means Taobao, Suning and Gome, although Amazon has managed to sneak in there too thanks to its purchase of domestic player Joyo in 2007.

The report shows China is already well on its way to becoming the global e-commerce leader the government is aiming for, with a recent edict from on high revealing ambitious growth plans which will require a quadrupling of web sales by 2015 to reach 18 trillion yuan (£1.4tr).

It’s not certain how far the strict oversight and ‘guidance’ the government is planning to enforce will stifle this growth, although it’s unlikely the Party would interfere in anything making China economically superior to the rest of the world.

The UK is no slouch in this space, of course. Although it can’t compete in the value of its total online sales, it will lead the way over the next four years when taking money spent online as a percentage of total GDP, according to the Boston Consulting Group. ®

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