Try to be a trendsetter instead of a trend follower in the eyes of your customers. Take for example our work to bring Italian red wine to China. Chinese consumers like to drink “baijiu ‘’ and there lacks a “wine tasting” culture in China.
As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melody Jia is General Manager of Suning International, the global business arm of China’s leading retail service provider.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After I got my Master’s Degree from a joint program run by Claremont Graduate University and Stanford University, I had several choices in front of me, each leading to a different career path. I was sure from early on that following a standard career path wasn’t for me. Instead, I wanted to constantly take on new challenges and push boundaries. I felt that by joining a “start-up” that existed within a growing Chinese conglomerate, I could get deeply involved in formulating strategy from early on and give myself multiple options for a future career path.
At that time, Suning’s smart retail division was showing strong growth and I thought it would be very exciting to join a company that was pushing forward China’s consumer trends. So when I learnt that Suning’s US Silicon Valley R&D Institute — a center to give tech support to Suning’s smart retail — was about to be launched, I applied for the team without any hesitation.
My graduate study saw me major in positive psychology. Both my major and my hobby yoga have inspired me in my career path: Flow (a term in positive psychology) refers to the mental state that people show when they focus on a certain behavior. When people focus on completing difficult yoga movements or work tasks, they get a sense of accomplishment. It’s the same with one’s career: Challenges are an integral part of the job. You should not be afraid. Flexibility and patience helps. Once you overcome these challenges, you can get a real sense of satisfaction and of accomplishment. That’s always been my motto in my career path.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’d like to share two stories and both of them share one thing in common: in both cases something was built from scratch.
When I first joined the Suning US R&D institute, there were only two core employees, and I was one of the two. I built my knowledge in the fields of AI and cloud computing while building the institute and expanding the team. I still remember the day when the institute was inaugurated, bringing tears of joy.
The most exciting thing at Suning is the Sup‘s Project we created as a team from scratch. Sup’s is Suning’s international platform to bring customized branding services to overseas brands looking to enter China. This was a very fulfilling project to work on: from logo to space design, from recruitment to product development, from zero to profitable within12 months!
Sup’s core mission states “it’s up to you” and it focuses on four major verticals including clean beauty, organic F&B, craftsmanship and east-meets-west styling. The Sup’s mission is not just about business but also about spreading happiness. I truly enjoy the project because it’s also a bit of an experiment, applying positive psychology and flow theory to the design of immersive shopping experiences.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
Suning’s US R&D Institutewas a very international team and we experienced cultural differences at times. The differences never actually developed into “mistakes” but did add some funny moments to our daily working lives.
My job is all about making choices as I’m now in charge of the company’s international business and strategy. I encounter decision making in choosing the right partners, the right brands, and the right products. I don’t see the choices I make as being necessarily right or wrong, because every way has its benefits. What I’ve learnt is that you should understand the market, the industry and your customers so that you can lead the trend not just follow the trend. It’s particularly important for those of us working in the retail sector. Be swift, flexible and forward looking, and make sure you move faster than your competitors.
Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
Yes. Before I share more details about these projects, let me give you a brief introduction oto the company I now work for.
Founded in 1990, the Suning Group has two listed subsidiaries in China and abroad and more than 280,000 employees around the world, ranking as the third biggest company in the Chinese private sector.
Committed to its mission of Leading Industrial Advancements and Creating a Higher Quality of Life for All, it provides quality products and services to more than 700 million customers worldwide with its business scope covering the three main sectors of retail, real estate, and financial services.
Suning.com, the main subsidiary, is a leading smart retail service provider in China. In 2020, Suning.com maintained its position in the Fortune Global 500 and topped the 2020 List of China’s 500 Most Valuable Brands with a brand value of RMB 296.815 billion.
Suning International is the international business arm of Suning Group and is committed to becoming China’s number one imported supply chain platform
I’m currently working on a project called “one-stop solutions for overseas brands to enter China”. It’s unique because it provides two categories of services: One is traditional cross-border trade services, such as customs clearance, supply chains and logistics. The other is localized and customized consultancy and marketing services for overseas brands that are looking to target the Chinese market.
With these one-stop solutions, we are committed to bringing more overseas brands into China and helping them thrive in a vast market. One interesting observation we’ve seen is that people living in small Chinese cities, towns and even villages are driving increased demand for overseas brands and products. As a result this project can help more overseas brands to penetrate these lower-tier Chinese markets and bring people living there more choice. Suning has found that imported beauty products make up around 30% of all imported goods in the post-pandemic reporting period, according to a recent Deloitte report. And we also observed the same trend through our own channels. In medium-sized markets, sales of imported beauty products, especially clean beauty products, are surging.
We are looking to introduce more imported beauty products and brands through our rural retailer (Suning Retail Cloud) to reach more consumers in county-level Chinese cities and villages.
You might be wondering what Retail Cloud is, so here’s some more details. Retail Cloud primarily targets lower-tier Chinese markets. The Retail Cloud is committed to empowering small and micro business owners to link brick-and-mortar stores with online platforms. We give training courses to the store owners — mostly couples — on using digital tools including popular marketing tools such as live streaming. We also give them advice on picking the right store location and products. As of May 18th 2021, we have opened 9,000 Retail Cloud stores in lower-tier Chinese markets and we are planning to open even more!
We’re also planning to bring more overseas products to Retail Cloud store chains, including Japanese saki, Italian red wine, and Asian clean beauty products. We see significant business opportunities here and in turn, we hope to bring people a diversified lifestyle. From a personal standpoint, I also find these projects meaningful because they have empowered women, often housewives in rural places in China to start their own small business.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
As I mentioned earlier, my major as a graduate student was in positive psychology and my hobby is doing yoga. So in my mind, doing business is like completing difficult yoga poses. Doing yoga requires flexibility and patience, just like work. Challenges are an integral part of any job. You should not be afraid, just be flexible and always embrace change as it comes. Once you overcome these challenges, you get a tremendous sense of accomplishment.If you’re feeling under extreme pressure, take a deep breath. If that doesn’t work, take two.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I would say the founder of flow theory in positive psychology who was also my mentor for my graduate studies. The flow theory is a great theory in positive psychology, which influenced my way of managing my team and the relationship I have with other people. I hope to apply this to the retail industry to create immersive experiences and a constructive atmosphere. By leveraging all of our five senses, I’m committed to exploring the potential demands of consumers and building the “Experience Economy”.
Besides my mentor at university, there are a lot of people I’m grateful for, not just one particular person. I joined my current company via its “1,200 Management Trainee” program and I worked in different function departments to get familiar with different business arms of the company. When I was at the Suning US R&D Institute I learnt a lot from engineers in the team, and I was inspired by the “engineering spirit”. When I moved to Suning International to lead its international business, I also learnt a lot from our various partners both in China and overseas. Speaking with them helped me gain insight into the different market scale, industry trends and consumer habits in the West and the East.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In recent years, Suning has leveraged its corporate resources to support efforts in poverty alleviation and rural revitalization initiatives. So far, Suning has donated more than RMB 2.3 billion to targeted poverty alleviation and rural revitalization, with RMB 850 million going towards special initiatives.
Suning has donated funds and equipment to 388 impoverished counties across more than 20 provinces in China, including Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, Xinjiang, and Shaanxi. The company has built 170 Suning bridges, 160 Suning Dream Centers, 73 Suning school buildings, 20 roads, and countless other public welfare projects.
Suning has also set its sights on expanding the rural market by bringing it online. It has opened more than 9,000 Retail Cloud stores and created channels to help farmers sell their goods via digital product pavilions. Cumulative sales have topped RMB 14 billion, benefiting more than 10,000 poverty-stricken villages and coming to the aid of over 500,000 households.
Meanwhile, the company has also launched 116 poverty alleviation training centers across 111 hard-hit counties, resulting in the employment of more than 6,000 people. The average annual income of trainees has increased from RMB 42,000 to RMB 50,000, while the centers have led to an increase of nearly RMB 400 million in agricultural product sales.
Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
- We found that retail spaces are no longer just for shopping. Customers increasingly demand leisure activities too: cafe, book store, travel and cozy, trendy places for relaxing, meeting friends or taking selfies’. As retailers, we are looking to make our retail spaces more trendy and cozy in an effort to give an immersive experience for consumers. At Suning, we have different sizes of retail spaces: department stores, grocery stores and convenience stores. We also have pop-up stores in large shopping malls. In large retail outlets, we are redesigning the retail spaces to add more leisure spaces. For example, we have our Huggy cafe which is a cozy corner in our retail chains.
Below is an example of a pop-up store co-designed with British designer Emily Forgot:
It’s a retail space where you can scan the QR code attached to the products and jump to online shopping platforms. It’s also a leisure space where you can take beautiful photos, and sip wine or coffee at the mini bar inside the store.
2. We also found that consumers today are more “lazy”. The pandemic made them adopt a lifestyle where everything could be bought online and delivered very, very fast. This led to the development of “last-mile” delivery and we established the “1-hour service circle” empowered by Suning logistics. As an important business pillar of Suning Group, Suning Logistics is the largest self-built logistics platform in China’s retail sector. As of 2020, Suning’s warehouse footprint has reached 12 million square meters. Suning Logistics has achieved 24-hour delivery in more than 95% of China, covering multiple service networks such as community instant distribution, comprehensive express delivery, and community post stations.
3. As more and more people shop online and need to fill their time during lockdowns, livestream shopping is becoming more and more popular in China.
In some lower-tier markets, a new trend called “store livestream” is rapidly emerging — one store, one person, a smartphone.
For example, Huashui county is located in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. During Huashui County Retail Store’s livestream on May 19, 2020, there were 6,703 interactive comments and the total sales amount reached RMB 80,609 (~ USD $12,310). During the livestream, the store owner showed off several smart home appliances while answering various questions from the audience and managing online orders. Store owners have a deep knowledge of their products and the industry, and so doing livestreams enable them to have better interactions with their audience and make their recommendations more convincing. “Although influencers may be better known, I understand my products and customer demand best,” said one store owner.
In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?
In my opinion, retail stores and malls will continue to exist, but as I’ve said, retail spaces will become more diversified, as customers seek more leisure spaces. Shopping is not just about buying things but about the experience: enjoying delicious dishes, watching movies, joining various hobby studios, etc. If you casually step into a shopping mall in China, you will find that retail spaces are smaller, more and more spaces are taken by restaurants, children’s playing grounds, various training or hobby institutes, contemporary artistic exhibition spaces, etc. These personalized, immersive experiences with the human touch cannot be offered by online platforms.
The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?
Transformation. Transformation is always the key.
Take Suning for example. It was started in the 1990s as an air conditioner retailer and became the most successful of its peers at the beginning of the 21st century. It soon transformed into a leading comprehensive retailer of home appliances, branching out from just selling air conditioners. Then e-commerce surged, and the company had another transformation from a traditional physical retailer to e-commerce. Suning.com, the online platform affiliated to Suning Group, is now a listed company and also a Fortune Global 500 company.
Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
Emerging Chinese companies disrupted their industries by delivering top products at honest prices, not just selling “cheap” products. And you can see many western consumers have gradually changed their perception of “made in China” products. I believe it is not just because of price tags, but also because of improved quality of the products. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of the internet in China changed people’s lives. You can buy almost everything on major Chinese e-commerce sites including Suning.com and you can expect delivery within 24 hours. Chinese companies move very fast to cater to customer demands. For example, clean beauty products are becoming more popular, and so companies rapidly changed their strategy and offer more clean beauty products to customers.
So my suggestion is always understand your customers and be brave enough to make the changes necessary.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Always understand your customers and use your retail spaces to brilliant effect.
- Being immersive and interactive are integral parts of a fantastic retail experience.
- You are not just selling products, you are telling each product’s story.
- Customer service is very important. A major difference between a physical retail experience and an online experience is the immediate gratification. So for physical retail spaces, make your place as exciting as possible. Go and satisfy that urge for the perfect selfie spot.
- Try to be a trendsetter instead of a trend follower in the eyes of your customers. Take for example our work to bring Italian red wine to China. Chinese consumers like to drink “baijiu ‘’ and there lacks a “wine tasting” culture in China. So while we are bringing overseas red wine brands to China, we have various events to educate them about the western wine culture — inviting influencers to taste wine and comment, host seminars to discuss wine culture and winemaking techniques.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could start a movement I would want to create one that delivers more opportunities for women, and empowers women living in rural areas to have their own small business. Maybe a small store that provides unique immersive experiences — sisters, aunties, mothers, grandmothers in the neighborhood can get together and select the perfect products for their store from both Chinese and overseas brands. Ultimately, I want to ensure more women live a decent life.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I don’t have any social media pages, but I hope that this interview has given an insight into the work I do with Suning, and I’d be happy to come back and answer more questions any time!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!