Alex Zhou says he understands what his customers want and their needs resonate with him because he is one of them.
And now the Chinese boss of America’s largest Asian online marketplace is at the helm of a business that wants to bring Asian food, culture and lifestyle across America.
Zhou is the, perhaps unlikely, founder and CEO of Asian marketplace Yami. Not an Ivy League graduate with a global dream and multi-million dollar funding, but just a young man who had moved from China to the US to study at Kansas State University and couldn’t find his favorite foods from home.
In fact, he recalls, having to drive for hours to find Asian groceries and thinking he couldn’t be the only one inspired him to start online Asian market Yami.
So how do you go from nostalgic for Asian snacks to wanting to take on the e-commerce giants of mainstream America?
Zhou is adamant that he never coined the phrase “start-up” to describe what he started, instead Yami was just a business he created after graduating.
Zhou had moved to Los Angeles and admits that in creating an e-commerce business to help Asian American consumers find familiar products, the fact that LA had a significant Asian population and was the gateway for much of the product arriving from China , Japan and Korea had not crossed his mind.
“It’s also a matter of timing,” says Zhou. “Not only was I in the right place, but when I started the business in 2013 it coincided with a huge increase in the number of people coming from Asia to study in the US and of course, like me, they missed the familiar food from home.”
Zhou starts with Asian snacks
Zhou founded Yami – then as Yamibuy – and for the first three months was the company’s sole employee, before taking on its first employee. Today, the e-commerce retailer boasts more than two million customers, with an estimated one in 10 Asian Americans using the platform, Yami estimates.
Starting with Asian snacks, the site now contains over 300,000 SKUs, including food, beauty and health products, home appliances, books and a growing catalog “as our customers grow and need new things for their homes and for their new families”.
The early years of the business were about serving this traditional customer base, but Yami has in recent years expanded beyond serving Asian consumers and thus had to rethink its strategy.
“We first realized our products were appealing to a wider base when we noticed a lot of non-Asian names on the order forms, so we thought we’d better start researching,” he says.
“But our Asian customers know what they’re looking for and they’re largely brand-specific. If you look at Asian websites, they tend to be information-heavy and very busy. For a broader Western customer, searches are likely to be much more vague. like ‘Chinese tea’ or ‘spicy noodles’, so the search and the journey are completely different,” he says.
Zhou adds that new customers tend to come from one of three backgrounds: people with an enthusiasm for Asian cuisine, those who have lived in Asia and returned to the U.S., or those influenced by the growing appeal and influence of Asian pop and food culture.
To that end, Yami is partnering with Asian chefs and restaurants to gain Asian food lovers, but starting to outpace competition with other Asian markets and take on rivals like Amazon.
Yami expands distribution
More recently, Yami opened a warehouse on the East Coast, which will enable shipping times that rival Amazon Prime in the US — averaging just 2.6 days, Zhou says. In some areas they can do same or next day delivery.
“That’s why we first opened our West Coast warehouse and now our East Coast warehouse, and why we need to work with technology to provide the customer service and personalization that we did on our own when we were a small business.”
Indeed, around 95% of Yami’s products are imported from Asia, so data and artificial intelligence have become a cornerstone of its strategy, enabling it to use technology to predict demand and personalize marketing to customers.
Zhou remembers “starting” the first four years of operation, leading up to the first round of investment in 2017, and admits he never imagined he would be leading a business that now has ambitions to expand not only in the US but is also eyeing Canada.
Yami is also expanding its product categories, although it has yet to produce fresh products. Zhou says he would like to find a way to work with Asian supermarkets to supply fresh without Yami carrying stock – but it is currently on the “to do” list.
However, he sees potential in apparel, believes the US’s love of Japanese products could be further leveraged, and believes Korean toys are another category Yami could try soon.