A surge in online sales of New Zealand sheep meat during China’s lockdown continued to gain momentum even after the country opened its economy back up again.

Online purchases by Chinese consumers overall rose by 9% during the peak Covid-19 period of February to May, according to figures compiled by the NZ embassy in Beijing.

That compared to a 16% decline in all retail sales during the same period.

But Alliance Group’s general manager of sales Shane Kingston said online sales of the co-operative’s products outperformed the wider market with a 200% increase in May and a further 700% increase in July.

May’s sales were boosted by an online marketing campaign in conjunction with Beef + Lamb NZ on two of China’s largest e-commerce platforms and Alibaba’s TMall.

The campaign targeted online events run by the e-commerce giants with display advertisements on web pages and search engine optimisation marketing to attract the eyeballs of Chinese users of the platforms.

The co-operative had followed up May’s campaign by enlisting food critic and Chinese social media personality Make to promote the company’s products.

Kingston said the online space in China was “very, very cluttered” with over 25,000 meat items alone listed for sale online.

The use of so-called influencers like Make with large followings on social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat was crucial to differentiating Alliance’s products.

While Alliance was targeting different age groups the association with Make was aimed at younger consumers eating at home during the week.

“We built content in partnership with them that met their ethos and met ours and was able to talk to their followership in an effective way.

“We got 200,000 views which is large relative to their viewership.”

Despite the impressive gains made over lockdown, online still made up less than 10% of Alliance’s total China sales.

“But it is pretty explosive growth and we do see it being a much larger part of the overall sales we do,” Kingston said.

Silver Fern Farms group sales manager Peter Robinson said it was no surprise Chinese online consumption of meat had skyrocketed considering its early adoption of the format.

“China was probably ahead of the rest of the world in terms of that type of shopping anyway.

“Whereby the ability to have product delivered to your door in Shanghai within an hour is quite impressive.”

Robinson said SFF did not have an accurate picture of how much of its products were being sold online because its major customers did not report that information back to it.

But the company was convinced online sales would be significant from now on.

“Because people not only in China but around the world have found a new way of shopping and as a result they know it works and they know it is reliable.

“These sorts of events change habits.”

Robinson said SFF was investing accordingly and planned to establish its own online store independent of other virtual shop fronts it was already associated with other exporters in China.

“Our major part will be getting the right platform and marketing and selling the right message.”

While SFF would hire influencers it saw less of a role for them than targeted advertising on social media and creating its own content to attract shoppers.

“We spend a bit of time on social media advertising and getting click through to our offerings whether it be on e-commerce or retail,” Robinson said.