Making a mark with e-commerce in the home of Alibaba

It’s no coincidence that cross-border e-commerce specialist and emerging travel retail player GDFS chose Hangzhou as the site to kick-start the next wave of its expansion. On Saturday GDFS opened its first Experience store in this city of nine million people, which is also home to one of the behemoths of the digital retail world, Alibaba.  GDFS, as we reported previously, is a membership-based e-commerce business that offers branded goods at overseas duty free prices and ships to Mainland China destinations.

GDFS Vice President Diana Xi tells us: “We looked at other cities but we chose Hangzhou for several reasons. One, it’s the home of Alibaba and people here are open about e-commerce. Second, we have strong relations with Hangzhou and a warehouse in the duty free zone of the city.”

There’s much more to come, including further Experience shops, partnerships with duty free retailers overseas to bring added benefits to the GDFS membership base, an expanded presence of its own in duty free retailing, plus outlet malls.

I have just spent a fascinating weekend with GDFS senior management and team [full story online shortly at] as they marked the opening in this youthful, energetic and in many parts beautiful city.

The Alibaba campus is like a city in itself, and has become an icon of Hangzhou, attracting talent, wealth and driving the cost of living soaring. For Silicon Valley in the USA, read Hangzhou in southern China.

The view from my hotel in the heart of vibrant Hangzhou
The striking facade of the Chanel boutique in downtown Hangzhou, with Louis Vuitton next door; these and other leading brands lie just yards from the new GDFS store

There’s much more to it too. Hangzhou is a microcosm of China’s status as a haven for great brands, which have brought their A games to the downtown department stores and boutiques. I challenge you to find a more striking execution of Chanel, inside or out, than at the Hangzhou Tower complex, adjacent to the GDA Plaza which houses GDFS’ store.

The GDFS Experience store fits with Hangzhou’s status in the world of digital retail and e-commerce

This ancient city packs a few surprises too. At its heart lies one of the most stunning city amenities you’ll find anywhere, in the shape of West Lake, a vast fresh water lake featuring numerous islands, pagodas, temples and gardens. In fact, it’s not far from Alibaba HQ, which takes some of its design inspirations from the city’s well-known parks.

With the senior GDFS team at the official store opening on Saturday

After the opening I enjoyed the most pleasant of afternoons boating on the lake with some of the GDFS team, before we paid a visit to the house of Louwailou on the water’s edge. The most famous restaurant in Hangzhou, it catered to the G20 Summit last year – and offered us a memorable evening of Chinese warmth, hospitality and terrific food.

A new chapter of the GDFS story is beginning, as we report elsewhere, and the company has the ambition and backing to be a major player in travel retail in the future. The opening lines that were written this weekend in Hangzhou won’t be forgotten by those who were here.

The sun sets on stunning West Lake in Hangzhou

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