Food fight! The next battle for China e-commerce

Tomohiro Ohsumi | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A number of e-commerce firms in the mainland are inking deals to import foreign delicacies, reflecting growing consumer worries over a series of domestic food scandals.

JD.com, the mainland's largest online direct sales company, announced on Monday the launch of a new channel dedicated to selling a range of authentic Australian food products, including milk, meat and fruit, as well as wine from Treasury Wine Estates. Australia is the latest entrant to JD.com's online 'country malls', which already include France, South Korea and Japan.

"Chinese consumers are increasingly enthusiastic about trying, buying and using products from all over the world" said JD.com founder and CEO Richard Liu.

Online supermarket Yihaodian opened a similar exclusive channel for Canadian seafood and meat earlier this month in an agreement with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). Alibaba, meanwhile, already leads the way in terms of foreign food products. Last week, the e-commerce giant announced it added 11 more countries to its Tmall Global site, a platform dedicated to foreign brands. Food is Tmall's most popular product category, according to Alibaba.

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The transaction volume of imported goods purchased online could reach $245 billion in five years, with more than 200 million Chinese consumers engaging in cross-border shopping, said a recent report from Accenture and AliResearch, Alibaba's research arm.

The taste for imports comes as no surprise given the country's ongoing battle with food hygiene. Last week, authorities seized a batch of smuggled frozen meat that was 40 years old. Scandals like these explain why 75 percent of Chinese have no confidence in domestic food safety, a March survey by the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) showed.

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"Food safety issues, an increased focus on health and wellness, and a growing willingness to spend on children have made organic or fresh fruits, meats and vegetables, and baby-related products top spending priorities this year," Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in a report on Monday.

While JD.com was unable to share top-selling brands, it told CNBC that dairy and wine had traditionally been two of the biggest selling categories of Australian products.

A two-speed market

E-commerce trends are only a partial reflection of Chinese consumption, consulting firm BCG noted.

China has a "two-speed consumer market," where middle to upper-middle-class and affluent households, known as high-speed consumers, make up the bulk of digital shoppers, it said. Forty percent of these consumers shop online frequently-at least once a week-compared with 20 percent of less affluent households, i.e. the low-speed consumers.

Wealth gaps account for the difference between the groups, BCG explained.

"The average affluent household is expecting nearly 11 percent income growth; the average aspirant household, only 6 percent. This 5 percentage point difference, given the vast disparity in income levels between these two groups of consumers, translates into a 20-fold difference in actual earnings."