People in Hong Kong have long been famous for their love of shopping and, with the development of new online options using the Internet, they can now keep on shopping even when the stores are closed. The concept of logging on to hunt for gifts, special offers and daily necessities may have taken off more slowly in Asia than in the west, but e-commerce in its various forms is all set to boom in the region in the very near future.
According to Kerry Wong, managing director of eBay Hong Kong, the initial challenge for e-commerce companies was to change the traditional behaviour of consumers. This involved promoting the ease of access of Web-based platforms plus ensuring the security of payments and prompt delivery of items ordered.
Ms Wong says that the e-commerce sector is now not only growing fast, but is also becoming more sophisticated. The eBay business model provides a global trading platform where registered users can buy and sell items online. The company also offers opportunities for budding entrepreneurs by encouraging them to use the company's distribution network
In 2005, eBay had a total of 181 million registered users around the world, representing a 33 per cent increase on the figure for 2004. Steady growth is forecast for this year. The online marketplace is used by a diverse community of individuals and small businesses, which can also make use of the wide variety of educational tools, features and supplementary services made available. It is possible to trade on a local, national or international basis by accessing customised sites, and the best-selling categories include electronic products, cameras, photographs and stamps.
"Online business won't replace the 'offline' part of the market, but the two will complement each other very effectively," Ms Wong says. "The approach to marketing may also become more integrated as the e-commerce sector continues to grow in Asia."
She acknowledges the need for computer literacy and that the younger generation are likely to be more readily attracted. However, the company has not built its sales and marketing strategies around specific age groups. Instead, they have aimed to expand in all user segments, including among retirees, who may particularly appreciate the convenience of the service. Statistics show that the most frequent users still tend to be entrepreneurs and university students who typically fall into the category of being "tech savvy".
To monitor progress, everything about the business is measured on a real-time basis. In addition, special efforts have been made to reassure the public that systems security is tight and that confidential information relating to buyers and sellers will be adequately protected.
Ms Wong says that anyone interested in getting into the e-commerce sector must be self-motivated and willing to learn, since nothing about Internet-related business stays the same for long. She adds that the sales and marketing team has to provide the impetus, so high-calibre recruits should be able to offer ideas and innovation.
The company is now putting more resources into promotional activities to make itself better known to a wider cross-section of the general public. "We are doing this online, but also in the print media and by organising events," Ms Wong says. The campaign may extend to agreeing selected sponsorship deals in an attempt to establish a presence with a whole new community of users. Local site enhancement will also make it possible to introduce more variety and new product categories.
"It's a very complex and varied job," she says. "The industry is very transparent and we have to ensure good networking between different offices in order to see things from a macro point of view. We must also remember there are calculated risks all the time."
She explains that the major objectives at present include looking for more synergies, especially in China, and building stronger working relationships with partners and users. Another challenge facing the sector is the basic one of converting more people to become regular online shoppers. "In terms of the online marketplace, we have established a good foundation," says Ms Wong. "We now have a growing team in Hong Kong who have the technical knowledge and sales skills to take e-commerce to the next level."