Using digital tools to overcome the COVID-19 crisis: What can we learn from China?

China is a global leader in ecommerce and it has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemia for several months longer than European countries. How has the Chinese society and ecommerce been impacted? What could we learn from China in this matter? Limiting the impact of the virus should be everyone’s number one priority, but trying to keep businesses running and preventing people from losing their jobs is also crucially important. As long as face-to-face interaction is limited, digital sales and digital tools can be seen as a potential solution for businesses and other organisations. Read further to discover what learnings Yu-Yang Bai, Digital Business & Chinese Market Expert, has to offer from the events unfolding in China.

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A month ago, I was supposed to be on a Finnair flight from Helsinki to Hong Kong, preparing for business meetings with partners in Shenzhen, and dreaming about the holiday part of this trip, taking place in Taiwan. Obviously, none of these events happened.

Cancellations, bad news from business partners and friends, numbers of increasing coronavirus cases — China had become the epicentre of a soon-to-be global pandemic.

Normal things have changed drastically in the way people live, learn and work in the past months in China. While medical workers and people in many other lines of work have done their utmost best to defeat the virus, ordinary people have made a crucial contribution by isolating themselves physically, while connecting with other people and the world through online means. What can we learn from China, and what will be the impact for our future and the whole world?

Not-so-surprising surge in online grocery shopping

Online shopping had already become the everyday norm for Chinese consumers, which also helped many people and families to minimise the impact of lockdown on their everyday lives in the past months.

Ironically, Taobao, one of the biggest online shopping platforms in China, was launched at the height of the SARS outbreak in 2003; and another Chinese online retail giant moved into ecommerce in 2004 when its founder Richard Liu saw an opportunity to bring shopping online amid store closures and consumer fear over SARS.

Now when history has almost repeated itself, though on a much larger scale, what’s new in online shopping in China? Many online retailers and online shopping platforms have seen a surge in online grocery shopping as consumers stock up on food and other essentials ( Adweek: 5 Ways Coronavirus Is Changing Retail in China ). Many Chinese consumers moved their grocery shopping online to avoid large crowds in brick-and-mortar stores, while some have been forced to shop online as their neighbourhood stores simply ran out of stock.

When talking to some friends in China who recently adopted online grocery shopping as “the” way to fill their fridges and cupboards, it’s clear that in the current special circumstances, they all had to re-evaluate or reprioritise the weights of different factors. In many cases, these things used to be barriers for becoming a new customer of online grocery shopping. Prices, varieties, freshness, speed of delivery, overall easiness, and even emotional factors in grocery shopping when strolling through local markets and comparing this tomato with that tomato.

When prices are comparable to brick-and-mortar stores, when you actually get more curated choices online than from your neighbourhood supermarket, when “same-day delivery” is already very common in Chinese cities for online grocery shopping, when user experience is designed all around trust and convenience, when there are actual humans picking up your ordered items from supermarkets in full protection gear and eventually making a “contactless” delivery outside your door, what more can you expect and demand? And surely those new wishes will be continuously developed and fulfilled for you.

This all may sound like nothing special, but in many European countries it still is. And this becomes very purposeful in extraordinary times like these when online grocery shopping service providers can actually deliver on their customer promises, help people to prioritise their choices, and support the whole society to get through this. One segment of potential customers of online grocery shopping, which is often overlooked, is in fact senior citizens who are among the most vulnerable in this pandemic, who live alone, and who had little experience of online shopping in general. What can we do for them?

Being suddenly remote from school and office gives rise to e-learning

The whole coronavirus outburst started at the peak of Chinese New Year preparations, when millions and millions of Chinese were busy on their way home across the country, doing their last-minute festival shopping in the hope of a week long holiday with families.

This new year holiday first got extended by one week, and then another, and then several weeks, until the central government announced that school classes had to be held online. Businesses were urged to resume operations despite the national halt as much as possible, meaning people had no other option than continuing work remotely.

Many online learning platforms in China were enjoying the initial positive surprise of this sudden wave of new users without any extra marketing investments. Schools, teachers, pupils and parents were busy arranging all sorts of setups for virtual classrooms all over China, but very soon everybody began to ask one thing: how ready are we actually to embrace online learning?

DingTalk, an enterprise communication and collaboration platform developed by Alibaba, was suddenly under the spotlight when many schools and teachers chose DingTalk to be the platform for their remote teaching sessions. The app hit global news headlines when quarantined Chinese students poured their frustrations in hilarious spam reviews on app stores aiming to have DingTalk removed ( The Verge: Wuhan students tried to boot remote learning app from the App Store by leaving bad reviews), whilst developers vigorously worked on new releases with improved features. DingTalk later released their step-by-step guide and case studies helping schools and teachers to fully utilise the platform for online education purposes.

It’s yet to be seen whether the attempt of using DingTalk or other online collaboration and remote education platforms in this gigantic online learning experiment in China proves to be any success. At the very minimum it raised global awareness and interest towards online learning exponentially. What service providers and educators are about to focus on in the future, is not to simply adapt offline teaching for the online environment, but to create totally new pedagogical content for online learning and interactive learning experiences to all parties involved. And you never know when DingTalk or Alibaba will learn from what happened and release a totally new product dedicated for online education.

Finland has been widely respected all over the world for its advanced and successful education system. At the same time, Finland is not short of new innovations, solutions and start-ups in the field of online learning. For example, presents a great collection of Finnish apps and platforms which are well-suited for online learning. Now the world is ready to embrace it with open arms.

Looking beyond

Often in crisis situations like this people tend to look for the best from the worst and rush to quick actions to mitigate the risks, which is vital when battling against a dire pandemic. However, we do need to remind ourselves to look beyond the current situation and to keep our eyes on the horizon. It’s important to consider actions based on their long-term impact whilst focusing on the essentials in this pressing situation.

For many businesses, this is not the time to stop, put off plans for now, or to do less; this is the time to revisit the core of your mission statement, and in fact, do more for your people and customers — whilst being more purposeful. Digital tools have been created and developed in the belief that through them people’s lives can be improved and when in need, problems can be solved with their help. Now it’s the time to make it happen. Stay safe, reach out and offer help to others. Keep calm and be resilient. The curve is still ahead of us. Let’s work together to flatten the curve of coronavirus, and new growth will come.

About the author

Yu-Yang Bai is a Helsinki-based independent business consultant with extensive experience in digital commerce, consumer engagement and experience development. As the former Director of Digital Experience & Development at Fiskars Group, VP of Country Operations at Sulake and COO at HEI Schools, Bai has led various growth programs with Finnish companies within premium consumer products, ecommerce & digital media, online community & game development, and education management. Being native Chinese, and having worked with numerous market expansion and launch projects for the Chinese market, Bai is an expert on utilising the potential of both digital and China as the key business growth drivers. Connect with Yu-Yang Bai on LinkedIn.

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