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Language skills push cross-border online sales

By Cheng Si in Beijingand Deng Rui  in Chongqing | | Updated: 2024-03-21 23:44
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The key to good business is the right accent, cross-border e-commerce worker Zhu Yu will tell you. The 25-year-old, who is based in Guangzhou in Guangdong province, has become a TikTok sensation of late thanks to his ability to imitate different accents when speaking English, and his employer is not complaining. Zhu's unique skill has pushed revenues up manifold for the online seller of neon lighting products over the past months.

"What's up, homie! I'm Tony. Amazing! Most illuminated signs can be easily installed without wiring …" start the streamed videos that Zhu, who is known as Tony among customers abroad, hosts for his company. In the videos, Zhu introduces the products by speaking in different accents such as British, French and Indian, depending upon the target audience he is addressing.

"I started to handle the company's new media content in March 2022. We didn't have much of an audience then. We started to use different English accents in July last year to push sales, and the videos went viral," said Zhu, who graduated with a major in business English from a vocational college in Guangdong in 2018.

He said that online overseas orders had earlier totaled $5,000 to $6,000 per month. After the vocal imitation videos went viral, online revenue surged to $100,000 and more a month in November and December.

"Our online audiences and customers are mainly from the United States, Australia, and some European countries. The online overseas orders now take up 5 percent of the company's total revenue and I aim to increase the proportion to over 50 percent in the next two years," he said.

Zhu is among the tens of thousands of foreign language graduates working in the cross-border e-commerce sector. In a competitive job market, opportunities are few for liberal arts graduates elsewhere.

Data from recruitment portal Zhaopin shows that between 2020 and 2023, the proportion of job openings available for liberal arts graduates shrunk from 15 percent to 8 percent on the platform. However, cross-border e-commerce operators are still eager to recruit foreign language graduates to help them tap overseas market.

"Cross-border e-commerce experienced unbridled development from 2013 to 2018 and some business operators saw their annual revenue surging by 300 percent or even 700 to 800 percent during that period," said Wang Xin, director of Shenzhen Cross-border E-commerce Association.

According to the Ministry of Commerce, China's import and export volume amounted to around 2.38 trillion yuan ($330.6 billion) in 2023, up 15.6 percent year-on-year. Exports accounted for 1.83 trillion yuan, up 19.6 percent from the previous year. China so far has over 100,000 businesses involved in cross-border e-commerce, and the number is growing.

"Youths with language talent and computing knowledge can get quicker and easier access to the industry, and can better adapt to the changing market," said Wang.

Li Qiang, executive vice-president of recruitment portal Zhaopin, said that foreign-language graduates are favored by employers running overseas businesses and some job openings on the platform — such as procurement commissioner and operator of cross-border e-commerce — have specific requirements for language abilities.

"Young foreign language graduates can take advantage of their linguistic skills to gain easier and low-cost access to entrepreneurship," he said.

The 25-year-old livestreaming anchor Luo Yufan, who majored in English education, said her language and communication skills are major advantages, as they help her understand the audience's shopping preferences while livestreaming.

She took up the job in 2022 and earns around 9,000 to 13,000 yuan a month. "I've seen many jobless youths and I think it's a good idea for youths with language or overseas education backgrounds to get into the cross-border e-commerce industry. We can get a better view of the world in the industry," she said.

Though the cross-border e-commerce sector is offering plenty of opportunities to foreign language graduates at present, it will require more comprehensive talent for sustainable development in future.

"The cross-border e-commerce industry needs talent with a global vision and knowledge not only of languages, but logistics, intellectual property, laws and finance," said Wang Xin, the association director.

Wang Xu in Shenzhen and Li Wenfang in Guangzhou contributed to the story.

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