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Chinese firm behind the 'Amazon Coat' hits jackpot in US

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Founder and CEO of Orolay Kevin Chiu at his factory in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, China. The company's polyester coats, made from duck down sourced from Hebei and Anhui provinces, are priced between US$80 and US$139.

New York

WHEN Kevin Chiu left his job in 2012 to try his luck at starting an online apparel business in a rural Chinese city, his main goal was to carve out more time to spend with his wife and newborn child.

It never entered his mind that his Orolay puffer jacket would become a huge hit, celebrated as the "Amazon Coat" in US social and traditional media - and held up as a budding rival to premium brand Canada Goose.

Made from duck down sourced from China's Hebei and Anhui provinces, the polyester coats are priced between US$80 and US$139.

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By contrast, Canada Goose jackets start from about US$575 in the United States.

"We made more money in January than we did for the whole of 2017," Mr Chiu, 32, said at his factory in the eastern Chinese city of Jiaxing.

He estimates his firm made US$5 million in sales last month and expects to bring in US$30-US$40 million this year. US sales - almost all of which are sold through Amazon.com Inc - account for 70 per cent of total revenue.

Orolay's success is, however, not just a tale of competitive pricing and a design that found favour with US consumers.

Mr Chiu is among a wave of Chinese merchants that have benefited from measures introduced by Amazon in recent years that have made it easy for overseas vendors to sell on its site.

That's provoked concerns among US sellers on Amazon that they are being outgunned. And in industries such as apparel, experts say brick-and-mortar retailers cannot ignore the threat posed by the influx of small brands, many of which are based in China.

"It's the impact, collectively, that's happening in the industry from all of these brands. When you add them up, they're just all taking market share," said Robert D'Loren, chief executive of Xcel Brands Inc, whose merchandise is sold at Macy's Inc and on Amazon.com.

Amazon declined to comment on the view that US firms are being undercut by Chinese merchants using its site. It does not break down the number of sellers on its sites by country.

The number of Chinese merchants on Amazon is set to grow further as fierce competition and rising costs have made it less attractive to sell on local e-commerce sites such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd's Tmall, analysts say.

Indeed, Mr Chiu no longer sells in China. Orolay's other markets are Europe, Japan, Taiwan and Australia.

"We did sell on Alibaba in the early days...but competition in China is stiffer," he said, adding that increased costs to use local sites were also a factor.

In addition to fees to use Chinese e-commerce sites, sellers also face other costs such as investing in customer service teams.

Analysts say the number of Chinese merchants selling on Amazon's US site began to pick up over the last five years after it introduced measures that allowed sellers worldwide to store products at Amazon warehouses and provided help shipping those goods to customers. Late last year, the retail giant also started a programme that refers China-based sellers to local lenders. By comparison, Amazon offers loans to selected US, UK and Japan-based small businesses that sell on its site. REUTERS