By: Brian Beck
COVID-19 has "forced the hand" of B2B ecommerce
What do B2B businesses do when the traditional physical doors are locked, sellers and buyers can't and won't accept in-person appointments, business travel is effectively shut down, and industry trade shows — the transactional lifeblood of many supply chains — are shuttered? Well, one channel remains open. It is the digital channel, and the platforms and marketplaces that are already in place with the scale to support expanded digital demand are benefiting by meeting the needs of both buyers and sellers.
Consider the following (somewhat staggering) numbers, which demonstrate an unprecedented change in B2B purchase behavior in the United States since the start of the pandemic:
- Due to COVID-19, 51% of all companies now purchase at least 50% of their goods and services online, according to an August 2020 Digital Commerce 360 B2B survey.
- B2B online purchase behaviors will accelerate further over the coming year. In a similar survey, Digital Commerce 360 found that nearly 82% of business buyers will purchase more over the web in 2021, including 35% that indicated "significantly" more.
- The ecommerce percentage of overall sales in the US has almost doubled — from 16% to over 30% — in less than six months (Bank of America).
- According to CNBC, working from home is the new norm: 25-30% of the US workforce will still be working at home on a multiple-days-a-week basis as of the end of 2021.
- 46% of US buyers are buying from companies they have never purchased from before, shaking the foundation of traditional brand and channel loyalties and opening up new purchasing avenues for both buyers and sellers (McKinsey).
These statistics reveal a sea of change in the landscape for B2B ecommerce, and one that has significant implications for digital players that are prepared with the infrastructure and capabilities to deliver value to both business buyers and sellers.
One such platform that is gaining considerable momentum in the midst of this dramatic and rapidly evolving market is Alibaba.com (yes, the .com is part of the name!). But can Alibaba.com — which has traditionally been perceived by some in the US as a basic online listing service with products only sourced from China — really be a viable option for US businesses seeking to source and sell products? Can Alibaba.com really be a player in the US market, where Amazon and niche marketplaces have dominated?
It seems so.
Alibaba.com and its B2B momentum
Alibaba.com opened its doors to US sellers in July of 2019. Then, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States and people were forced to work from home, discovery of this channel accelerated. Consider these recent business results:
- Overall transactions by US businesses on Alibaba.com have increased more than 100% in 2020 vs. 2019.
- Gross merchandise value (GMV) in the US on Alibaba.com has grown over 85% year over year, and customers will transact tens of billions of dollars in GMV this year, according to the company.
- Company-wide, Alibaba.com's total annual revenue growth accelerated from the low single digits in 2017 to a 17% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in 2020, largely driven by gains in the US market.
- The US has become the fastest growing market for new sellers and buyers for Alibaba.com, across all of the company's global markets.
- To date in 2020, the US buyer base has grown by 70%.
Why is this happening? It comes down to a combination of the right timing, the right investment, and meeting buyers' and sellers' needs. The company is putting in place a number of things that indicate they are 1) serious about the US market, and 2) listening to US buyers and sellers.
For example, the company is investing in building an experienced team in the US. Alibaba.com has established a considerable in-market US presence, centered in New York, that is dedicated to the North American market. Resources are structured around recruiting new businesses to the platform, and then helping them succeed. The team is staffed with veterans of the US market, spearheaded by President of North America and Europe B2B John Caplan. Caplan has a background leading US internet and ecommerce companies, including OpenSky and About.com, among others.
The company is also adding tools to accommodate B2B buying. Alibaba.com already has and is creating more functionalities for B2B digital commerce, based on buyer and seller feedback, including:
- Alibaba.com Payment Terms — Aliababa.com allows qualified buyers to order goods and pay for them up to 60 days after they are shipped, accommodating the traditional "pay on terms" approach to B2B buying expected by US business customers.
- Free freight programs — Alibaba.com Freight enables on-demand ocean and air shipping for US businesses' orders, meeting US buyers' expectations for free shipping for online orders.
- Seller and buyer matching (think "virtual trade shows") — Alibaba.com hosts something it calls its "Online Trade Shows USA," which are multi-day virtual events that connect US manufacturers and wholesalers with business buyers in a live online format. This is potentially groundbreaking in a post-Covid world.
- Selling events delivered on a massive scale — With physical doors locked due to COVID-19, digital versions of the "sales appointment" are more critical than ever. Alibaba.com is well positioned to fill the gap here. For example, Alibaba.com's promotional events, like Super September and March Expo, allow thousand of sellers to showcase millions of products in 3D reality and virtual showrooms.
- Extended market reach for sellers — Alibaba.com is investing heavily in driving traffic to its site from US buyers, which allows sellers to cast a wider net to capture new customers. According to Alexa.com, Alibaba currently ranks as #63 most trafficked website in the United States, and this rank is rising during the pandemic.
- And — importantly — Alibaba.com is natively B2B — Alibaba.com was originally "built for B2B" — the entire platform is built for buying in bulk, obtaining quotes (e.g. "request for quotation" functionality), and providing custom pricing to B2B buyers. B2B is in the marketplace's DNA. This isn't a retail platform gone B2B, but a B2B platform staying true to its colors.
An important part of any businesses' success, whether online or off, is centering efforts on the customer. Alibaba.com gathers feedback from its buyers and sellers through something it calls its "Build Up" events, in which the company partners with local and industry groups in regional forums to discuss global trade and ecommerce issues. While these events (which are held in person) were reportedly put on hold due to the COVID-19 situation, the company indicates that it continues to gather customer feedback via digital formats, such as its online trade shows.
Implications for US product sellers and B2B buyers
What does this mean for US B2B companies? Alibaba.com is emerging as a component of a balanced ecommerce strategy for both buyers and sellers of products based in the US market. This has different implications depending on the type of business you are in. Specifically:
- For product manufacturers and distributors, Alibaba.com provides an opportunity to expand reach, brand recognition, and capture new customers, both in the US and abroad. While some traditional B2B product categories are still being deepened on Alibaba.com, early entrant sellers will derive benefit from being at the top of category search results as Alibaba.com continues to increase its web traffic.
- For US business buyers, Alibaba.com provides a way to source products when the traditional, physical sourcing doors are closed and locked. Taking advantage of events like Super September and March Expo are a great way to give the platform a try. Alibaba.com also provides seller ratings and seller verifications to help buyers evaluate and identify preferred vendors.
Ultimately, I believe we are seeing indications that Alibaba.com is emerging as a viable part of our post-Covid ecommerce landscape here in the US, and a channel worth investigating for your business. Remember that a well-formed ecommerce strategy has multiple components — it isn't one marketplace or digital channel at the exclusion of others. The momentum I am seeing from Alibaba.com should place this marketplace firmly on the list of considerations for your B2B ecommerce strategy.
The 2020 holiday season will be unlike any other for retailers everywhere. One thing is certain, small businesses need to be ready for anything if they want to succeed. Watch our fireside chat to hear the experts at Easyship walk through the best way for merchants to make this unprecedented holiday season a success. You can view our previous fireside chats here.
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