John Caplan headshot

Alibaba is using its technological wizardry and broad reach to break into the suddenly blossoming world of online trade shows with a three-day beauty fair starting Oct. 20. 

The move is both a sign of the times in a world still largely locked down by the coronavirus and a new take on where the sprawling Chinese company got its start — facilitating business-to-business e-commerce. 

While not as high-profile as the consumer market, the online b-to-b market is about six-times larger at $23.9 trillion. 

Alibaba.com, the tech giant’s cross-border b-to-b unit, facilitates its fair share — tens of billions of dollars each year — but wants to keep growing and to more efficiently connect buyers and sellers, according to John Caplan, the North America and Europe president and global chief marketing officer of the b-to-b platform. 

(Including consumer, Alibaba marketplaces facilitated $1 trillion in gross merchandise volume last year).

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Trade shows were already on the quick-moving Alibaba’s to-do list, but the pandemic supercharged the effort, which could help upend the way buyers and sellers have traditionally met to do business.

“Trade shows are the most important source of new ideas for buyers and consumers and manufacturers and wholesalers,” said Caplan, who was previously chief executive officer of Ford Models. “The U.S. trade show initiative is essential to our platform.” 

Alibaba is targeting 20 trade shows in 120 days and has completed or is under way with 18 so far, including three focused on U.S. sellers. 

Their scope is as broad as Alibaba — from the Industrial Online Trade Fair to WeCosmoprof. Eventually, the shows are expected to encompass all the categories sold on Alibaba, including apparel. 

Three of the shows focus on U.S. sellers, including the upcoming beauty fair, which offers a good look at the approach, which seems to be part Ted Talk, part Tinder and part QVC for the b-to-b world. 

In addition to tips and presentations from experts — including Amanda Johnson, chief operating officer and founder of Mented Cosmetics, and Barbara Paldus, ceo and founder of Codex Beauty — there are a variety of opportunities to check out and connect with brands. 

Caplan described it as “fast pitches, people present their capabilities, live demos where people are demonstrating what they’re able to do and then there’s this kind of back-end matching [of buyer and seller] that we’re doing — without the noise and distraction of the Las Vegas trade show floor.”

The first day of the beauty show is dedicated to private-label manufacturers, moving to branded goods on the second day while the third day is dedicated to CBD-based products. 

While so much of business life has gone online, including click-happy trade shows, Alibaba brings a big customer base to the table. And in beauty, those customers are looking for U.S. brands. 

“We have buyers from 190 countries and in the beauty and personal care space what they want is a U.S. manufacturer,” Caplan said. “They want goods that have been through the approval and regulation [process] here in the U.S.”

This is Alibaba’s first foray into trade shows and Caplan said it isn’t looking to take over that business — it is working with some physical trade show providers, as with WeCosmoprof. Rather, Alibaba is looking to expand what it does. 

“We’re part of an ecosystem of platforms that are interested in helping democratize access to the world’s business,” he said. 

“Alibaba.com committed to the online trade show because it’s good for business around the world and we view the analogue trade show folks as good potential partners to work with us to digitize what is essentially an event in the sale and distribution and discovery of goods,” he said. 

Sellers on Alibaba pay an annual fee of $2,399 and can buy advertising to increase their exposure and pay for logistics capabilities and other add-ons. Buyers don’t pay any commission on their purchases. 

“We take zero, our goal is to match buyers and sellers effectively,” Caplan said. 

That’s the model, after all, that’s helped Alibaba grow into a force of e-commerce nature in just 20 years.

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