by Xinhua writers Zhang Yizhi, Li Huiying, Hu Guanghe, Xu Ruiqing
Walking back and forth between shelves of neatly stacked shoes, some 20 live streamers dashed at the instructions of their followers on the phone, grabbing a shoe now and then from the shelves for a close-up in front of the camera.
At around eight o'clock every night, the supply chain platform 0594 in the city of Putian, east China's Fujian Province, springs to life as live streamers flock to the exhibition area to sell shoes produced by the local manufacturers, many of which are troubled by the cancellations or delays of overseas orders amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
"To get rid of the excess inventory, many manufacturers in Putian are turning to live streaming to explore the domestic market," said Chen Xing, general manager of 0594. "We are now cooperating with over 40 manufacturers and there will be more of them joining us in the future."
The platform is also building an internet celebrity incubator and has so far organized seven rounds of influencer training courses enrolling more than 200 attendees.
Huang Huafang, 39, signed up for the two-day crash course in late March and soon after started her first live streaming session. She works from around 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., attracting over 500 followers and selling more than 20 pairs of shoes every day.
Though she is not a well-known live streamer, she is optimistic about the future. "There is a long way to go, but I believe live streaming is a trend. It is an essential skill for anyone who wants to market online," said Huang.
A staff sells shoes through live streaming at an e-commerce warehouse in Putian, southeast China's Fujian Province, May 7, 2020. (Xinhua/Lin Shanchuan)
According to Chen, the platform 0594 sold almost 130,000 pairs of shoes in April alone. As the domestic economic outlook continues to pick up, the sales target of May has been set at 200,000 pairs.
Like manufacturers in Putian, a city with a large number of export-oriented enterprises, many Chinese factories are turning to the domestic market for a lifeline, while grappling with dropping overseas orders as major markets remain in the grip of the pandemic.
ADAPT OR DIE
With decades of experience in manufacturing and developing products for overseas clients, some export-oriented companies in China are rolling out products catering to the domestic market.
After months of gloomy business, Wu Songlin, general manager of Putian-based Hsieh Shun Footwear Co., Ltd., heaved a sigh of relief as trucks loaded with therapeutic shoes tailored to the home market left his factory.
It was the first shipment for the domestic market since Wu and his partners started the company in 2010. In the past, his company only had two clients, one from Europe and the other from Japan. Business used to run smoothly and life was good.
But his factory was on the brink of a shutdown in March when the coronavirus pandemic started to ravage the global economy. No new orders came in and shipments of existing orders were requested to be delayed until June.
People work in a footwear workshop in Putian, southeast China's Fujian Province, April 27, 2020. (Xinhua/Lin Shanchuan)
"Orders were canceled after completion of production, and our capital flow is stuck in our inventory. The pressure is mounting to keep the factory running," Wu said. "By the end of June, workers would be left with no work to do as soon as we complete the existing orders."
After losing almost all their orders from overseas clients, the desperate shoemaker turned to the domestic market. He called one of his old business partners and secured an order for massage footwear, which is selling like hot cakes in the domestic market as health tops the agenda in the time of the novel coronavirus.
The factory produced 10,000 pairs of massage shoes in April, and the number is expected to reach 30,000 in May, enough to keep the production lines running.
Thanks to the company's quick adaptation, about 200 workers kept their jobs in the factory, while 20 percent were furloughed and the remaining workers were arranged to work in other companies as part of the city's employee sharing program.
"If domestic orders keep coming in, our operation will hopefully get back to normal by September when the monthly output of massage shoes will reach 90,000," Wu said. "By then the company will live and thrive without any orders from overseas customers."
A woman works in a workshop of Hsieh Shun Footwear Co., Ltd. in Putian, southeast China's Fujian Province, May 7, 2020. (Xinhua/Lin Shanchuan)
But switching to another market is not easy, explained Wu. In the past, export-oriented factories were only in charge of manufacturing, while brands would take care of sales, promotion as well as customer support.
"If you are selling to the domestic market, you need to have your own brand and marketing capacity," he said. "Working with e-commerce platforms could be one way out, but it's more important to understand domestic consumers and meet their needs."
CUSTOMIZE THE FUTURE
For years, many export-focused manufactures have been trying to climb up the value chain and tap the uncharted waters of the domestic market. As the pandemic continues to spread, there is a strong push for them to embrace customized manufacturing.
In an experience store located in downtown Putian, customers line up waiting to have their feet measured on a smart device. After a few seconds, they get their readings on the phone, and a few swipes and clicks later, they place their orders with unique features, colors, and shapes.
Adjacent to the experience store, there is a flexible manufacturing workshop, which gives quick responses to orders and produces shoes following the customized demands of individual buyers.
SEMS, a longstanding sports footwear manufacturer that has established a partnership with several international brands, started to adopt flexible manufacturing years ago in an effort to adapt to the evolving domestic market.
A customer has her feet measured on a smart device in sports footwear manufacturer SEMS in Putian, southeast China's Fujian Province, May 8, 2020. (Xinhua/Lin Shanchuan)
Customization gives consumers the benefit of products that fit their needs, and at the same time allows factories to utilize improved workflows and technology to maintain high output and omit the process of inventory and distribution, said Zhu Yizhen, the executive vice president of the company.
"Currently we only sell over 100 pairs of customized shoes a day, but we are at the dawn of a new era," Zhu said. "We hope more companies awaken to the developing trend and join in the practice of mass customization."
Customer to manufacturer, or C2M, which allows consumers to place orders directly to factories for customized products, has become a buzzword among export-oriented manufacturers hoping to reach domestic consumers amid the pandemic.
Li Junjie, who runs a ceramic flowerpot plant in Fujian's Dehua County, one of the manufacturing centers of ceramics in China, did not sell a single pot to his overseas customers since the coronavirus outbreak in late January.
The factory used to export 30 percent of its flowerpots to the United States and Spain, but Li managed to make up for the lost deals by selling on domestic e-commerce platforms. Instead of bulk orders placed by foreign clients, domestic consumers tend to purchase customized products in small amounts.
Photo shows the automatic production line of a customized workshop in sports footwear manufacturer SEMS in Putian, southeast China's Fujian Province, May 8, 2020. (Xinhua/Lin Shanchuan)
With the big data provided by e-commerce platforms, Li can tell which items will be a hit so as to increase their production and develop new products based on a thorough analysis of different consumer groups.
"Our online sales almost doubled over the past year, and we have sold over 100,000 customized pots this year, thanks to the C2M business model," Li said.
Li's company is one of many Chinese small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that have benefited from the e-commerce giant Alibaba's Spring Thunder Initiative, which is aimed at helping export-focused SMEs expand into new markets.
The initiative will also help some SMEs to transform and develop their business in the Chinese market through measures such as resource support, fee reductions, and fast-track processing.