WeChat, the multipurpose messaging app run by internet giant Tencent Holdings, said there has been a sharp increase in people using its platform to buy groceries and everyday food items, as many remain stranded in their homes in China amid the deadly coronavirus outbreak.
Delivery-to-your-door mini programmes embedded in WeChat have seen strong growth in the past 20 days, with users of an online supermarket mini app and a vegetable and fruit mini app seeing growth of 115 percent and 168 per cent respectively year on year, according to WeChat data released on Monday.
Community online merchants also saw users increase by 83 per cent over the past 20 days, against the same period a year ago.
The numbers reflect a strong move from offline to online activity in China, including health check-ups, education and shopping, with many cities locked down to prevent the spread of the disease, which has now killed more than 1,800 people and infected more than 72,000 in China as of February 17.
The coronavirus epidemic, although expected to be negative for overall economic growth, has presented an unexpected opportunity for some internet companies as e-commerce and remote working become an even bigger part of people’s everyday lives.
Taobao Marketplace, Alibaba Group Holding’s biggest online shopping site, and short video platforms such as Tencent-backed Kuaishou and Douyin, owned by ByteDance and known as TikTok overseas, have also seen their popularity surge as people flock to online sites in place of gathering in public places.
Daniel Zhang Yong, Alibaba’s executive chairman and chief executive, said last week during a conference call that consumers significantly inflated their average basket size of online purchases on Freshippo and Taoxianda, Alibaba’s “new retail” businesses, after turning to online shopping for daily necessities amid the outbreak.
Some analysts said more time is needed to discern whether this shift in consumer behaviour is structural as opposed to a short-term adjustment.
“Very few consumers were unaware of online options [before the virus],” said Brock Silvers, managing director at China-focused Adamas Asset Management, adding that although the current aversion to public crowds may spur some uptick in revenue for internet companies it may not be “large or permanent”.
Many e-commerce companies are a mix of offline and online activities, with logistics and deliveries also being disrupted by some of the restrictions in China because of the health crisis.
Meanwhile, with online education ramping up as students stay at home to study, sales of tablets and laptops to access these online services have been boosted, according to local media reports.
In third and fourth-tier cities, people are snapping up second-hand laptops and tablets, according to data from online marketplace Zhuanzhuan.
Used tablet sales have increased nearly 85 per cent from the beginning of February to February 13 against the last 10 days in January, with purchases by third and fourth-tier cities accounting for 45 per cent of total sales.
Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post.
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This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.