By Emily Bary
Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. sees opportunity to digitize the trade show landscape now that many events have been canceled due to COVID-19, a move that the company says could help level the playing field for small businesses.
The Chinese e-commerce giant announced a series of new features Tuesday for its Alibaba.com platform, which seeks to connect international suppliers with buyers. Among the new product introductions is Online Trade Shows USA, an effort to create more digital experiences in business-to-business (B2B) commerce where U.S.-based wholesalers and manufacturers can meet new customers.
The prospect of online trade shows represents a “pivot in how small businesses connect and engage,” said John Caplan, Alibaba.com’s president for North America and Europe. With digital options, they won’t have to “invest three days and thousands of dollars to travel” to in-person events, he said.
Bulking up the Alibaba.com commercial platform with new digital features has become a strategic goal for Alibaba /zigman2/quotes/201948298/composite BABA +1.04% in recent years. Though the site is the company’s oldest business, it operated for many years as more of a phone book for small businesses rather than a marketplace like Alibaba’s better-known Tmall and Taobao consumer e-commerce platform.
U.S. government statistics indicate that the global market for B2B e-commerce could be six times larger than for business-to-consumer e-commerce.
Alibaba has seen accelerating growth of the B2B platform during the COVID-19 crisis, according to Caplan, as small businesses look for digital ways to meet customers now that they can’t make in-person sales calls as easily.
The company announced Tuesday that it will be adding trade financing and freight features to the site as it seeks to build a more robust suite of offerings and address more pain points in global trade.
With the trade-financing option, “qualified buyers” will be able to order goods through the platform and pay for them up to 60 days after they ship. Cross-border trade between small businesses typically requires 100% payment upfront before goods ship, Caplan said, which can create a cash-flow issue for buyers.
The company is working with MSTS, a B2B credit company, to determine which buyers are qualified for the service. Alibaba is also partnering with digital freight marketplace Freightos to let businesses compare pricing and manage logistics for freight operations online.
Alibaba shares have shed 2.1% over the past three months as the KraneShares CSI China Internet ETF /zigman2/quotes/205873167/composite KWEB +1.74% has added 7.4% and as the S&P 500 /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX -0.58% has lost 1.1%.