In 2022, Michael J. Sandel, a professor of political science at Harvard University, published the book “The Arrogance of the Elite”. The book mentioned that successful people always tend to closely link their success with “personal efforts”. And ignore the timing and good fortune that contributed to their success. The more we believe in this belief, the more we discount the misfortunes and structural difficulties faced by others.
The view of “meritism” has been widely discussed after the recent incident in Li Jiaqi’s live broadcast room in which he responded to comments from netizens. E-commerce groups that have seized the trends of the times and industry dividends have created one wealth legend after another in the past few years.
In addition to the astonishing leading e-commerce company with a daily income of 5.08 million, there are also many small and medium-sized e-commerce companies that are working hard to explore in the complicated industry ecosystem. How do they find the golden key to wealth? Is “hard work” really the only way to get rich? Will the sudden collapse of leading e-commerce companies bring about the effect of “when one whale falls, everything will survive” for small and medium-sized e-commerce companies?
Qian Linliang, associate professor of the Department of Sociology, School of Humanities, Southeast University, is from Yiwu. Based on his curiosity about the emerging e-commerce practitioners in his hometown, he conducted a 13-month field survey in Yiwu and interviewed more than a hundred practitioners, including Most are small and medium-sized e-commerce companies.
In his view, e-commerce operators need to remain sensitive to commodity hot spots and new platform rules at all times. In Yiwu, China’s largest small commodity distribution center, everyone hopes to create a myth of wealth, but the rules of success are like a “black box” of algorithms. People are constantly interpreting them, but few can explain them clearly. What follows is based on his account.
Welcome to the world of e-commerce
Due to my inertia as a researcher, my field experience began in a school in Yiwu.
This was once a very popular school. As a college for vocational and technical training, it did not evaluate students based on their academic performance. The only academic goal of every student who enters the “Entrepreneurship School” is to open an online store. The graduation assessment is measured by how many “crowns” the store has achieved (the grade standard for Taobao stores). At that time, the school had a widely circulated admissions promotion: “When you enter the school, you are a poor boy; when you come out, you already own a BMW.” This was indeed the true experience of many students at that time.
After staying in school for about a semester, I felt that I should go deeper, so I moved into an e-commerce apartment in Taobao Village. A larger e-commerce world gradually unfolded in front of me.
The popularity of Yiwu’s e-commerce has also given rise to the e-commerce training industry. You can easily see advertisements for such institutions in the streets and alleys of Yiwu. Some people learn the basic skills of opening an online store through training, while others do it to improve their operational capabilities. Considering the diverse needs of e-commerce for training, training institutions generally provide different types of courses. These prices are not a small amount for many workers who sign up for training, but they generally believe that it is a worthwhile investment that will pay off in the future.
In addition to spending money for training, working directly in an online store is another important way. The job-hopping rate of e-commerce employees is very high, ranging from a few months to a few days. Both employers and employees know very well that they are here to learn skills, but employers are usually not stingy about teaching them. One interviewee once understood this behavior as “ the sharing spirit of e-commerce entrepreneurs in the new era .” He emphasized, “I am not afraid of competition because the online market is too big. Only when more people join the market can it prosper and our business grow. Traditional businessmen would never dare to do this.”
This concept is very common among the e-commerce practitioners I met, and it forms part of their imagination of industrial modernity. They believe that the Internet and e-commerce are the development trends of today’s world, and following the trends and working hard are the keys to leading them to success.
In the early days of entering the field, the biggest difficulty I encountered was the “terminology” that came up from time to time when talking to e-commerce practitioners. UV, PV, SEO, PPC… Although they may not be able to tell their exact full English names, these are basic concepts in the industry. Therefore, when I ask them what this means, they are often ridiculed. Although they have a doctorate, they are not well adapted to the new socio-economic environment. After becoming more familiar with it, some interviewees even recommended some webpages and WeChat public accounts to me, believing them to be indispensable sources of information for learning new knowledge about e-commerce.
Not only must you be very sensitive to new things, but you must also know how to use them to promote yourself. As a way to accumulate cultural capital, e-commerce practitioners believe that this is an important way to help them better seize business opportunities and obtain wealth.
“Before, I was confused about what Internet thinking was. After reading a bunch of related books, I became even more confused. But when I went to attend entrepreneurship lectures, I found that everyone seemed to understand it, but did they really understand it? ?I guess even the speaker doesn’t understand, but everyone has to pretend to understand, otherwise you are not a qualified e-commerce company. Furthermore, you must not only be able to use these fashionable words, but also know how to create New words, so that you can package yourself as a big shot. In this era, packaging is really important. You must be very familiar with many business models, and then tell your audience how they create ‘disruptive innovation’. Otherwise, how can you To gain a foothold in the e-commerce circle? How can we represent the development trend of the world?” an e-commerce practitioner said with emotion.
In my interactions with e-commerce practitioners, several sellers who grew up in rural areas compared their e-commerce business to farm work, which left a deep impression on me. They compare the relatively leisurely first half of the year to “farming slack” and the intense and busy second half of the year to “busy farming”. Double Eleven is the harvest season. Arrange your life throughout the year according to such seasonal patterns.
“When I was young, I watched my parents working in the fields. They were too busy when they were working, and too idle when they were free. In order to get rid of this lifestyle, I went to the city to make a living. As a result, I started an e-commerce business, and I felt like I was back to the past.” An online businessman from rural Henan joked to himself.
Different from the clear business hours of offline stores, one of the breakthroughs of e-commerce shopping is that it changes the limitations of people’s shopping time. But for operators, this does not mean that orders will be averaged to all periods in 24 hours. The opportunity for an online merchant to establish time sensitivity for the first time often comes from exploration in business practice.
When a new product is first put on the shelves, the packaging method, shelf time, etc. may be completely random. Operators often assume that new products will receive traffic promotion and thus gain certain exposure. But when time goes by and no orders appear, he will wonder if there is something wrong with my store settings?
The explanation may be from multiple angles. For example, are the pictures not good enough? Is the exposure insufficient? Is the amount of brush orders not enough? Of course, I will also wonder if there is something wrong with the time settings for loading and unloading? Just like a hot word we often discuss today – “algorithm black box”. Sometimes everyone has some speculations and understandings of their own, but no one can explain them clearly. Most experience comes from observation and summary. In this process, time seems to be the first to be associated with and the easiest to shape.
An interviewee once observed and concluded that there are several “prime hours” for consumers to shop online during the day, such as 9:30~11:00 in the morning, 13:30~15:00 in the afternoon and 19:30~ in the evening. 21:00. These experiences first came from his observations when he was working as an online store customer service. These are the times when a large number of customer inquiries are received, and this insight was later confirmed by the big data analysis provided by the platform.
Outside of daily prime time, there are significant statistical differences in passenger flow on different days of the week. For example, passenger flow tends to show an upward trend day by day from Monday to Wednesday, reaching the peak on Wednesday, and decrease day by day from Thursday to Sunday, reaching the bottom on Sunday.
Merchants will use these observations to adjust their listing and removal times, and more knowledgeable sellers will even use big data software to observe and monitor the exposure of their peers and their own products at the same time in order to make appropriate adjustments.
They also tried to explain the reasons for the emergence of these “prime” times from their own perspective. For example: weekends are rare holidays, so people do not spend time shopping online, and the shopping peaks on Tuesdays and Wednesdays are because people have just After the holiday, there is still some time before the next holiday. It is the most boring time to go to work…
This kind of observation and judgment based on consumer behavior will soon be transformed into usable platform operation experience. In the e-commerce industry, it is an open industry secret that “hot sales” may come from careful operations. By hiring a team that specializes in fake transactions, within a specific time period, they simulate the order search keywords and decision-making behavior of ordinary users, creating a conversion rate that exceeds that of similar products, thereby gaining traffic support from the platform, making “fake hits” a “Really a hit.”
Spatial cognition of e-commerce
In addition to time, the cognitive imagination of geographical space is another important part of building an e-commerce operation strategy.
Before the phenomenon of “free shipping nationwide” became popular, there was a very obvious chain of contempt between “free shipping area” and “non-free shipping area” in online shopping practice. This conceptual regional division is based on e-commerce’s precise calculation of the balance between logistics service prices and profits.
Mr. Liu, who was born in a mountainous county in Chongqing, is the owner of an e-commerce company that specializes in hardware products. After graduating from high school, he went to coastal provinces to work, and finally settled in Yiwu to engage in e-commerce business. A map of China hangs in his office, which he says is needed for his business.
Whenever a customer places an order and asks about postage, he will find the customer’s location on the map and quickly calculate the shipping cost and delivery time. When I met him, he already had six years of e-commerce experience, which helped him build a map of routes and price ladders for sending goods to various places in his mind.
In Mr. Liu’s view, the logic of distinguishing express delivery prices is centered on Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai where it is located, “spreading out like a wave. The first layer is Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shanghai and Anhui, the so-called free shipping area. The second layer They are Shandong, Henan, Hubei, Jiangxi, and Fujian. The third circle is Liaoning, Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei… until the fifth circle is Heilongjiang, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Tibet and other remote areas…” Mr. Liu said about this “concentric circle” The model is quite confident. He believes that it can not only explain the price zoning of express delivery places, but also reveal the distribution patterns of e-commerce industry clusters in mainland China.
Although Mr. Liu’s imagination of the economic geographical space of e-commerce is too simplified, it is enough to reflect how e-commerce companies use their business operation experience to construct their understanding and imagination of the e-commerce industry in the spatial dimension.
Sociologist Mr. Fei Xiaotong once wrote when describing the differential pattern of Chinese society: “(Our social structure) is like the ripples produced by throwing a stone on the water. Everyone is It is the center of the circle promoted by his social influence. Those who are promoted by the circle’s blog posts will be connected.”
This division constructs the closeness and distance between people in our culture. The “concentric circle” model constructed by e-commerce operators represented by Mr. Liu also allows them to distinguish “three, six or nine” differentiated hospitality methods when facing consumers.
“Customers in some remote areas will bargain on freight, and the probability and frequency of inquiring about logistics are also higher. Selling to them cannot make much money, but they need to invest more time and energy, and they are also prone to failure due to insufficient service or The transportation losses received bad reviews, and the efforts were made in vain.” In the eyes of experienced e-commerce operators, orders from remote provinces are often considered to be “small orders” of no value, and are ignored or maliciously sent inferior goods in order to make profits by causing psychological pressure with high rights protection costs. Through these obscure ways of “rejecting customers”, e-commerce operators ensure maximum profit conversion.
The “personality” of e-commerce
After the rise of live broadcast e-commerce, many e-commerce companies began to focus their operations on live broadcast and began a new round of investment in research on platform rules, traffic and gameplay. But in Yiwu, no matter what e-commerce you do, there are very few changes at the product level, and the basic way to make money is still to increase volume at low prices.
Different from the big anchors in media reports who have strong capital, avant-garde marketing technology, and need to deliberately create changeable personalities, Yiwu’s small and medium-sized e-commerce companies almost share the same set of personality templates – simple grassroots. Faced with the plight of the leading anchors who have insufficient capital and a high degree of market traffic monopoly , small and medium-sized anchors will strategically turn their disadvantages into entry points to tap into the sinking market.
Starting from “looking for high-quality and low-priced goods for our families”, anchors and consumers will occasionally gradually establish a relationship that goes beyond sellers and consumers in the process. An anchor once shared a scene that moved him in an interview. One day, his voice was hoarse during a live broadcast because he was sick. The “family members” in the live broadcast room quickly sold out all his goods, just to let him go off the air and rest early.
For small and medium-sized anchors who bring goods, “grassroots” and “struggler” are not only “personalities” and labels for bringing goods, but also active identification based on their own experience. The rough but realistic live broadcast quality has also aroused great empathy among consumers who are in similar life situations.
The “personality” of small and medium-sized e-commerce anchors is an issue worthy of repeated exploration. There are both parts that can be created and extremely authentic presentations. “Reality” and “falseness” are complexly intertwined in this way of doing business.
Effort is the only controllable part
In order to allow myself to have more in-depth conversations with e-commerce practitioners, I once ran a Taobao store. When I completely switched to the perspective of an operator, I gradually discovered that it is difficult to express the triviality and hard work through words, even more difficult than writing a doctoral thesis. As one of all business forms, in the world of e-commerce, the myth of wealth creation is still a myth and only exists for a few “lucky ones of the era”.
Of all the people I interviewed, very few considered themselves “successful,” and even those online merchants who made money felt that the road to success was still long. Rather than “working hard”, they are more willing to talk and share their understanding, observation, guessing and practical skills of the platform rules. This is a world full of rules and gameplay, which is the result of the superposition of complex factors.
The above-mentioned management of time, space or people are necessary efforts for e-commerce practitioners in the practice process, but they do not constitute sufficient conditions for success.
There are two different business models in Yiwu. One is to sell “perennial goods”. The passenger flow has remained tepid and stable for a long time, requiring sellers to work hard for a long time. The other type is “seasonal products” that are hot topics. “As long as you keep up with the trend, pigs can fly.” As the world’s largest small commodity distribution center, the “information smell” generated by the gathering is an innate advantage of Yiwu’s e-commerce development.
Products are being updated and channels are changing, but in the final analysis, the business model of e-commerce is still the logic of the retail industry – the information gap of channels. The Internet, which claims to have broken the boundaries of time and space, has to some extent strengthened the information barriers from the production end to the sales end. E-commerce is stuck between the supply and demand ends. It relies on technology to build a platform that not only operates independently as a businessman, but is also subject to Platforms work for them and are exploited by them.
E-commerce companies are competing with the rules of the platform in their status as “both business and industry”. To some extent, their situation is no different from that of riders who are “trapped in the algorithm.” Just as one online merchant summarized the current situation of Double Eleven Meaning for e-commerce operators: “You may not survive if you participate, but you will definitely die if you don’t participate.”
Will the sudden collapse of the leading e-commerce companies bring about the effect of “when one whale falls, all things will rise”? This is a difficult thing to give an answer to. When the rules of an industry are trapped in a “black box”, no one can give a systematic explanation. For small and medium-sized e-commerce companies that have no clear idea of their own ecological position, “effort” may be the only controllable part.