Online-to-offline biz model breathes new life into death

Updated 2017-04-03 09:30:27 China Daily

Volunteers in Dingyuan county, Anhui province, lay flowers on the graves of revolutionary martyrs on March 30.

Sales of goods, services for funerals, 'post-life' rituals try virtual

A nation of many aging people spawns business opportunities for not only firms offering elder care services, but startups that focus on what follows next-death. And, you may want to add, what follows death-customs like those observed on the Tomb Sweeping Day.

Some Chinese startups see death and afterlife as aspects of life that could do with some planning and professional expertise, with a dash of online-to-offline or O2O services. The goal of new-age service providers is to ensure those who will depart would do so in dignity.

Only, such startups don't hog media limelight like others of their ilk in segments like high-tech and apps for this or that.

The rationale for such seemingly somber business might be found in estimates from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which show funeral-related products and services in China will likely top 100 billion yuan (.5 billion) in sales this year.

A Beijing resident, it would appear, needs 80,000 yuan to die and be buried in the capital. For perspective: an average Beijing resident's annual disposable income is 52,000 yuan. Stated differently, he or she needs to plan at least a couple of years in advance for a death with dignity.

“The profit for a traditional funeral service shop can reach 100 to 200 percent,” said Wang Dan, CEO of Bi An, a pioneering funeral service company that closed down recently. “A decent funeral could cost tens of thousands yuan, and 50 percent of the cost may go into the pockets of hospital workers.”

Death is a market all right, but one without regulation-and without easily available information.

Hence, funeral services remain a largely exclusive business. Disorder is the order of the day. The departed go in dignity, the living pay the price. Pain on top of grief.

“This business segment is falling behind the modern society,” said Xu Yi, Bi An's co-founder.

With almost two decades of work experience in the internet industry behind them, Xu and Wang came up with the idea of combining the brick-and-mortar business with e-commerce to allow people to simply click and pick coffins or caskets. That would mean transparency via an easily accessible shopping catalog and much lower prices.

It is a market with huge potential.

“In China, about 10 million people die annually. The number is growing at 0.7 percent annually,” said Wang Qin, a consultant at Sansheng Consulting. “The annual revenue of funeral services is likely to reach 600 billion yuan by 2020.”

Small wonder, even the big boys of e-commerce such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and Inc have been lured to the sector.

Their users can now buy funeral products online. Digital marketplaces such as Taobao, Xianyu and Jingdong Mall offer a wide variety.

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