How Chinese department store Intime survived Covid-19 crisis

It’s Labour Day weekend in China and customers in masks have been trickling into the Intime Hangzhou West Lake store incessantly since 10am.

Shoppers floated from counter to counter, determined to snatch the best deals the long holiday has to offer. Since the widespread outbreak of Covid-19 across the country at the start of the year, this is the first time that the five-story department store has been able to operate at normal capacity.

Like many other retailers across the world, Intime was adversely impacted by the novel coronavirus, with 65 stores operating across China. At the height of the outbreak, it had to suspend operations at brick-and-mortar stores in many hard-hit cities.

But Intime has been able to recover swiftly from pandemic-induced disruptions, thanks in large part to its robust digital infrastructure and omnichannel capabilities. The chain was acquired by Alibaba Group in 2017 as part of the e-commerce company’s New Retail push and has since been fuelled by innovations that bring together the worlds of online and offline shopping.

The investment has paid off during hard times: through live streaming, online shopping as well as a series of punchy campaigns and sales initiatives, Intime has been able to not only resume operations but also claw back its losses.

Live streaming as a lifeline

When traffic to physical stores dropped off during peak months of the coronavirus outbreak in China, Intime responded quickly by ramping up its efforts on Taobao Live, Alibaba’s live-streaming platform. While the store had always made use of the online video tool, since the pandemic, it has increased the number of its live-streaming sessions to an average of 200 a day, rolling nonstop from morning to midnight. Meanwhile, more than 5000 sales associates from Intime’s physical stores have registered as live-streaming hosts, while floor managers have been tasked with scheduling duties.

“The backend of each live-stream session on Taobao is linked to Intime’s online store, making it easy for users to place direct orders,” said Eric Cao, associate store manager for Intime West Lake.  When viewers see products they like during a stream, they can simply tap on its link to purchase. If the item is eligible for discounts or coupons, these will be automatically applied at checkout.

Intime livestream

Above: More than 5000 Intime sales associates registered to livestream on Taobao during the coronavirus outbreak.

According to Intime, live streaming has become the single-most effective way to reach new consumers during the coronavirus. More than 90 per cent of orders placed through live streaming come from new users, said the retailer.

“When I livestream, my viewers are very different from those we receive at the store, who are often tourists visiting West Lake,” said 26-year-old Chenjie Shao, a Lancome sales associate at Intime. Shao started live streaming only three months ago and said her online followers are younger and often look for high levels of engagement. “They tend to type a lot faster and leave loads of comments,” she said.


Above: Lancome’s sales associate at Intime, Chenjie Shao (left) livestreams at work.

Sales associates like Shao make for effective live-stream hosts since they have solid knowledge about their brands and products and are also able to offer unbeatable deals through online discounts, coupons and even freebies which align with Intime’s own campaigns.

On International Women’s Day on March 8, for example, Shao and Intime CEO Xiaodong Chen hosted a live-streaming session watched by more than 220,000 viewers.

“More and more consumers are shopping as they watch live streaming. It’s the same experience as buying offline,” explained Shao. “I now refer my regular customers to our live-stream sessions because that’s where they can get the best deals and each order counts towards our monthly sales target just the same.”

The online experience

During coronavirus-related lockdowns across the country, Intime changed its strategy to cater to consumers who increasingly relied on online shopping and home-delivery services for daily essential and other purchases. As the stay-at-home economy soared, so did traffic to Intime’s offline-to-online shopping app, Miaojie, which covers more than 90 per cent of Intime’s stores across the country.

While Intime’s physical stores operate from 10am to 10pm, with Miaojie, the retailer is able to take orders 24 hours a day. To further encourage shopping online, it also rolled out free countrywide shipping for all in-app purchases and partnered with Cainiao, Alibaba’s logistics network, to help cover deliveries within a 10km radius of any store.

As a result, Intime saw a surge in online orders even as early as February. This helped offset losses caused by drops in traffic to its physical stores, and in-store staff who were not busy livestreaming were able to help process online orders and preparing them for delivery.

Getting back on its feet

While Intime’s online activities have grown during the pandemic, it has also seen a steady recovery in its offline businesses as China emerges from weeks of lockdowns.

To boost local consumption and consumer confidence, Intime has distributed RMB1 billion ($140 million) in vouchers and discounts since April and ramped up sales efforts for the extended Labour Day holiday. At the same time, it installed pop-up displays of indoor cherry blossoms at its stores so shoppers could snap and post photos on their social media accounts.

Intime shoppers

This combination of online marketing and offline attractions successfully boosted Intime’s in-store visits, said Cao. From May 1-3, its average foot traffic grew by 50 per cent compared to the same time in April.

“We are seeing month-over-month growth since reopening,” said Cao. “Sales here have been growing from Women’s Day to Tomb Sweeping Day and now the May holiday. These are important signs of recovery and boosts of confidence for retailers like us in China.”


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