A visitor uses a vending machine that can link to a consumer's Taobao account using facial recognition at a makeup event in Shanghai in March, held by Alibaba Group. (Photo: China Daily)
When it comes to skin care, there are two particular schools of thought that seem to be somewhat at odds with each other: One focuses on pure plant extracts, and the other on high-tech.
But with technology entering every aspect of Chinese lives, it is inevitably infiltrating the beauty industry. And the country's tech-savvy consumers are embracing it without hesitation.
According to Tmall, the country's largest business-to-consumer e-commerce site, smart beauty and skin care solutions have seen transaction volume double annually for three consecutive years, though no figures were disclosed.
"We've seen beauty brands swarming to follow the trend of using big data analysis, artificial intelligence and facial recognition to recommend and customize beauty products for consumers," said Chen Lijuan, head of Alibaba AI Lab, an in-house unit working on commercially convertible technologies.
Look into a mirror that provides expert skin care tips or try on makeup using an augmented-reality app. While these may sound like scenes from a sci-fi movie, the technology enabling such products is actually closer to reality than you may imagine.
South Korean beauty provider Innisfree is allowing customers to get a feel for the brand through such devices, allowing them to experiment with makeup virtually.
"We have introduced digital, entertainment and interactive technologies in our physical stores, merged online and offline membership and enhanced consumer insights through upgrading our stores," said Filipp Cai, general manager of Innisfree China.
Placing a high-precision camera on different parts of an individual's face, the skin analyzer assesses skin condition, shade and texture, and provides appropriate makeup recommendations.
"My dark skin isn't always the easiest to match, so I thought I would give it a go," said Xu Fan, a 27-year-old postgraduate student in Shanghai, who visited the brand's stand during last year's China International Import Expo, where she got to create a foundation color specifically for her skin tone.
The intelligent skin care solutions are raising much fanfare as the younger generation's digital natives embrace head-to-toe tech makeovers with comfort.
Such behavior has encouraged the likes of Philips to roll out electronic toothbrushes tailored to Chinese preferences.
"We distill customer insights based on online surveys and data analysis provided by Tmall," said Oliver Cheng, vice-president of Philips' personal care unit in China.
"We are able to take into account their needs and adjust dental care programs accordingly."
Following the toothbrush, Philips is planning to make a foray into smart skin care products by exploring customer data from Alibaba. This is a pre-emptive approach from the research and development phase to localize product design.
Online purchasing has become the locomotive pulling the overall growth of the skin care and beauty sectors. Last year, revenue generated from e-commerce channels in beauty and personal care jumped 37 percent and 36 percent, respectively, eclipsing the sectors' overall 14 percent and 7 percent growth, data from Kantar Worldpanel showed.
That also propelled brands to spend big in the country's digital space, as in the case of personal care giant Unilever. According to Ma Wen, vice-president of beauty and personal care at Unilever North Asia, the majority of the firm's ad expenditure in China is placed online, whereas budgets are largely allocated to traditional TV commercials in many mature markets.
"This definitely has to do with the macro environment. Chinese are undoubtedly most adaptive to, and willing to embrace, the digitalization wave. That's why we have confidence in our smart personal care offerings," Ma said.
The company built a new R&D center in Shanghai last year to co-develop products with Tmall and explore new opportunities in China's fast-growing personal care products market, by leveraging the advantages of supply chain management abilities of Unilever, and the big data and new retail resources of Alibaba.
"We've released a bathing product that is designed to protect the skin from smog. This is an untapped desire we've learned of from consumer insights based on big data analysis," Ma said, adding that the company is on course to unveil a smart washing machine in China.
There are at least three dimensions of technology empowerment in beauty and skin care-high-tech ingredients, beauty tools and the use of technology to enhance purchasing experience, said Jason Yu, general manager of Kantar Worldpanel.
"While it is difficult to establish a direct link between technology and sales boost, all brands still need to enhance their customer experience in those three areas to constantly attract young shoppers, especially Generation Z," he said.
For Johnson & Johnson, that means putting advanced algorithms to work to create two new flavors of its iconic Listerine mouthwash: Rosemary Blossom and Vanilla Breeze.
Data-backed insights into oral hygiene in China coupled with feedback from online customers have driven the US personal care giant to come up with new flavors and trim the go-to-market time to five months from the usual 12 to 18 months.
"A proprietary databank of Tmall gives you a fast reality check on the product you are creating and more time to modify the product based on real consumer behaviors," said Deng Xu, Johnson & Johnson's skin care and hair general manager, who thinks the next step is to introduce smart beauty machines.
Customers leave digital footprints after they search, discuss and purchase online. Tmall is using a matrix of social media and analytical tools to categorize, pinpoint and identify key customers, by matching brands' positioning and consumer profile.
"Online traffic is coming close to its ceiling. It's time for us to go back to the commercial basics with a consumer-centric approach, which should be backed by big data," said Hu Weixiong, general manager of the fast-moving consumer goods practice at Tmall.
Live broadcast, algorithm-backed advertisements and customized influencer recommendations have formed a strong matrix in Alibaba's ecosystem to draw in customers and predict their shopping patterns. Hu said they are eyeing even more novel measures such as a "joint club member alliance" to enhance online and offline integration.
"For instance, by purchasing from a vending machine, a user becomes a member of the brand's online store and automatically signs up for membership of a number of brands in the alliance," Hu said.
Tmall is pushing such momentum one step further: it is looking to unveil a smart speaker-backed intelligent mirror this year, which uses an AR-backed mirror as an interface and integrates its indigenous Tmall Genie voice interaction and operating system to provide expert skin care tips to users.
"This allows us to forge closer ties with brands and open up more of our AI, AR and data capabilities to partnering vendors," said Chen of Alibaba AI Labs.
Technology is making a real impact on cosmetics consumption as it reinforces the shopping experience that is being increasingly valued by China's relatively affluent and well-educated female group, according to global consultancy Accenture.
In a survey published in March, more than three quarters of Chinese women aged between 25 and 44 who have a monthly income over 8,000 yuan ($1,190) believed that "shopping is all about purchasing experiences".
Besides, they have exhibited higher interest than their male peers in products with voice functions, fueled by AR or VR technologies, or wearable devices.
"As we see a lot more talk about how technology increases the efficacy of products, it also means that your future consumers will have more information about themselves than ever before," said Lee Ann Thevenet, China manager of consultancy Mintel. "So brands need to make sure that this innovation matches what these consumers aspire to."