Last September, China's most successful consumer-to-consumer online marketplace, Taobao.com launched a massive online promotion. By offering exorbitantly low prices on a series of brand name consumer electronics by Lenovo, HP, Philips and others, the site attracted 1.8 billion visitors (non-unique) - the equivalent of every single person in China visiting the site at least once.

With 145 million online shoppers expected by the end of 2010, e-commerce in China has come a long way since it began about a decade ago. What types of business models exist? Who's shopping online and what are they buying? And where do we go from here?

Guest author Joel Backaler writes The China Observer, an award-winning blog focused on Chinese technology trends and consumer culture. His writing has appeared in and he has been quoted by the Wall Street Journal China Journal, BusinessWeek, and Seeking Alpha. Joel is a Mandarin-speaking former Fulbright Fellow who has worked and lived in Taipei, Beijing and Singapore with Frontier Strategy Group. Follow Joel on Twitter.

How did it all begin?

Jack Ma and his partners launched Chinese e-commerce in 1998 with Alibaba.com, a business-to-business online platform. Like the Web firms of Silicon Valley, Chinese firms felt the shockwaves of the Internet bubble bursting in early 2000 - but in China the Internet industry continued to grow. 2003 was a turning point for Chinese e-commerce with the release of Alipay, Alibaba's version of PayPal, which provided a secure means for online payment.

2003 also marked the first entry of Western multinationals in the Chinese e-commerce market - first by Ebay taking a controlling stake in Eachnet, and then with Amazon subsequently doing the same with Joyo.com in 2004. Roles reversed in 2005 when Alibaba Group gained control over Yahoo!'s Chinese search platform. A period of explosive growth began in 2008 as China's e-commerce market grew to 100 billion RMB, with 80 million online shoppers.

Where are we today?

In 2009, China's e-commerce market totaled 263 billion RMB (approximately $38.5 billion) with growth equivalent to about 105% increase year-on-year. Currently, consumer-to-consumer (C2C) represents the largest segment of China's e-commerce market; however, business-to-consumer (B2C) is increasingly growing in importance due to two trends.

Traditional Retailer to Online Retailer: Traditional retailers are developing e-commerce platforms as additional channels to get consumers to buy their products. From brand name domestic retailers to state-owned enterprises, there is a major push to go online. It has even been reported that Wal-Mart is set to release its own e-commerce platform for the Chinese and Japanese markets.

Individual Seller to Online Retailer: Due to the extreme success of particular sellers on existing C2C sites like Taobao.com, online shops that began with a single college student or a small family have been forced to seek out additional support to satisfy market demand. As a result, these one-time, single-person operations have been incorporating into formal enterprises stepping into the B2C space.

What types of business models exist?

China's e-commerce platforms can be classified by the following three models: marketplace model, online retail model and traditional retail model.

Marketplace Model: The marketplace model connects buyers and sellers, whether it is business-to-business or C2C. The company provides a platform to facilitate business between two parties but has no products of its own to offer. It maintains a searchable database of information for buyers and seller to connect, and a secure means to facilitate payment between both parties.

  • Top B2B players: Alibaba.com, HC360.com, Myekoo.com
  • Top C2C players: Taobao.com, Paipai.com, Eachnet.com

Online Retail Model: The online retail model is where a company has no formal real-world storefront. It provides both products and a channel to sell directly to end customers.

  • Top B2C Online Retailers: 360buy.com, Joyo.com, Dangdang.com

Traditional Retail Model: The traditional retail model is similar to the online retail model; however, in addition to the online website the company also has real-world retail outlets.

  • Top B2C Traditional Retailers: Gome (electronics), COFCO (state-owned: food and beverage), Lining (athletic apparel)

Who's shopping online and what are they buying?

Shanghai-based iResearch estimates that by the end of 2010 there will be 145 million online shoppers in China. Online shoppers are relatively young - the majority are between the ages of 18 and 35. While this number is split roughly evenly, slightly more women shop than men.

In the early days of Chinese e-commerce, products such as software and DVDs were the top purchases. Currently clothing, books and cosmetics are the top sellers. Additionally, as we have seen in the U.S. with sites like Etsy, companies that focus on niche markets are also sprouting up. For example, 21Cake.com is a popular made-to-order online cake company that sells custom-made cakes online and delivers to China's major cities.

Where do we go from here?

China's e-commerce market is yet to fully mature, but it is entering a period of high-speed growth. C2C sellers that are growing more successful will begin to establish more formal companies, leading to an increase in the number of companies in China's B2C space. While many view the Internet as a sensitive area subject to regulation by the Chinese government, the government supports e-commerce due to its economic benefit and potential for job creation.

One example is Xinjiang, a remote province in western China which recently experienced social unrest. Most websites and email there are blocked - but you can still access Alibaba.com and Taobao.com. Of China's e-commerce companies, Alibaba Group will remain the company to watch in this space for many years to come. However, there is still a lot of room for niche operators to capitalize on the growth potential of China's e-commerce market.

Image by Kim2402.