Chinese conundrum for meat importers

By Mark Godfrey

- Last updated on GMT

China hopes to grow online sales of meat this year
China hopes to grow online sales of meat this year

Related tags Meat products Retailing Food China

China promises online sales bonanza for imported meat products, but brands warned to invest in marketing.

Imported beef and lamb cuts are high on the priorities for China’s top online commerce sites readying their promotions for the biggest sales day of the year, so called Singles Day or ‘11-11’ on 11 November, which was worth almost US$10 billion in sales to online retailers in China last year.

Some of the best-selling products in the past year include New Zealand lamb, according to Eric Li, vice-president at, a major online retailer headquartered in Shanghai. Packaged beef steaks, lamb cutlets and salmon fillets are in the top 10 food items sold on Yiguo last year on 11-11 and the firm has sent representatives around the world to source new products, according to Li. 

Online sales models are the most efficient in China’s huge marketplace, said Li, “because you can directly target particular consumers, and you can add a lot of value through recipes…we can also hire chefs to do demonstrations online to educate consumers​”.

However, overseas meat firms frequently neglect to educate Chinese consumers who are often completely unfamiliar with Western meat cuts and cooking methods, said Li. “Our customers use e-commerce sites to learn about products and to research them before they buy. You’ve got to be willing to do free samples and really educate the consumer​.”

There are several key drivers making online sales –which currently account for almost 11% of overall retail sales – crucial for brands targeting China’s consumers. Ongoing urbanisation is contributing to rising disposable incomes and a population of internet users of 650 million - the world’s largest. “As more Chinese move to cities and better wages they are joining the masses of online shoppers who currently number over 300 million​,” explained Li. “The key demographic is young women, with the largest percentage aged 25- to 30 years old.​”

Top online retailer​, meanwhile, is using a new presale model which allows it to better predict demand and increase sales, explained Edith Huang, head of fast-moving consumer goods at Tmall, which is owned by e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba. Said Huang: “We believe we can sell much more meat and other food products if we can better predict the demand, because in many cases we sell out quickly of particular items of imported food products​.” Imported meat products continue to enjoy the confidence of Chinese consumers, according to Huang. She detailed the results of a Tmall survey which showed that top of Tmall customers’ priorities are food safety (62% of those surveyed by Tmall) and the sell-by date of goods (43%).

Selling through online outlets like Tmall – which charges commission on sales – has become an option for meat exporters worried about the costs and reliability of distribution in China. A threadbare cold chain means that meat products are often poorly handled, said Craig Bowyer, operations director at Swire Pacific Cold Storage, which provides refrigerated trucking and warehousing to food brands in China. “There are hundreds of logistics providers now in China but much of the facilities are not up to international standards​,” he said.

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