The specific features of the Chinese market have led French luxury cosmetics company Clarins to consolidate its multi-channel digital positioning. The company’s mobile strategy consists of building tools to bridge the gap between points of sale and the customer’s online experience.

Retail in China: the power of mobile helps Clarins to drive web-to-store and vice versa

Interview with Julien Chiavassa, who is in charge of deploying Clarins’ digital and e-commerce strategy in the Asia Pacific region.


How are you rolling out Clarins’ digital strategy in China? How does the company strategy there differ from elsewhere?


Clarins has always taken a digital approach but on a regional basis. We draw on all available tools worldwide, take the best and develop a local version in line with the specific needs of that particular region. China is far and away the group’s number one priority as regards the brand’s digital positioning, given the specific features of the Chinese market. Many international websites are blocked there, so are a lot of back office tools, and these restrictions require special handling. We therefore have to think again about some of the methods we use elsewhere. The same is true for our web media placements because search engines are another thing that works differently here. For all these reasons we are forced to adopt a somewhat different approach. The main strategic thrust is the same but the operational deployment – the implementation and execution – is geared to local conditions.


How do you reach out to your customers on the social networks?


Basically Clarins works on two different social networks, apart from the ones we know in the west. The first is called Weibo; it’s a hybrid version of Facebook and Twitter. The second is Wechat, a sort of Whatsapp with multiple functionality. Wechat has seen an explosion in user numbers and there are also many brands on the network. These two networks demand special handling because the way people use them is different in China from the rest of the world. The Weibo platform is basically all about mass communication. If you’re a brand this means you have to push the message out to users and make use of opinion leaders to try and obtain maximum visibility for your message. Wechat is more geared to CRM between brand and user. Content is more segmented, and involves the user more, offering a lot of activities and games, connections with the Customer Relations Manager. The nature of the dialogue really depends on which tool you’re using.


How important is mobile in your digital strategy?


This is a key topic in Asia, especially in China. Close to 40% of our online traffic comes from smartphones. Yes, mobile is indeed a key part of our strategy. So our website is optimised for mobile and a percentage of our media placements are also on mobile. In fact Wechat is only available on mobile. This network is a gold mine for brands since the mobile approach helps to promote ‘online to offline’. This network, which is right there with consumers all the time, helps to bridge the gap between the point of sale and the online experience.


So how do you link the customer’s in-store experience to the online experience?


Well we’re just beginning with that. It’s quite difficult to produce that type of experience on a large scale but we’re doing more and more online offering of product samples. This means that customers request samples online and then go to pick them up at the store. For each marketing campaign, we run an activity of this type and we’re aiming to run some new activities. We’re constantly working on the web-to-store concept and, vice-versa, we’re increasingly pushing the use of QR codes in-store.


Are QR codes widely used in China?


Yes, they are, and this is partly due to Wechat. With 500 million users in China – around 50% of the population – the network has incredible traction. The QR code enables users to sign up to brand accounts and also to pull up the contact details of a friend on the network. The Chinese are very good at using QR codes.  For example, in every restaurant, at every table, you’ll find the QR code of the restaurant. That’s why we’re increasingly incorporating them into our poster and in-store campaigns.


And what about your e-commerce strategy? What are the synergies with other channels?


Today we have two e-commerce platforms: the site and our ‘flagship store’ hosted on Tmall, which is the B2C section of the Alibaba Group’s Taobao. We launched our e-commerce website eighteen months ago and our ‘flagship store’ eight months ago. I should point out that Taobao and Tmall together generate 90% of all online transactions in China. In other words, almost all e-commerce goes via these two platforms, which both belong to the Alibaba group. The Tmall environment generates around 50% of all B2C transactions in China. None of the local brands even think about setting up their own brand website. Their first step is to open a Tmall site. International brands work differently of course. They usually arrive with an existing global platform, e.g., and then think about whether they should open a Tmall site. We decided to do so.


Eight months after the opening of your Tmall flagship store, what sort of results have you achieved?

We’re already feeling very strong traction. The flagship store is benefiting from Tmall’s own very impressive traffic volumes. In addition to large volumes, the customer experience on Tmall is quite simply exceptional. The website provides an excellent customer experience on PC, mobile and tablet. The user is offered a wide range of functionality: order progress can be tracked online on an hourly basis, online reimbursement is very simple, and so on. And apart from the customer experience on the website, Tmall has adopted an aggressive commercial approach to push brands to offer one-off deals, such as promotions and gifts.