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Alibaba Uses CES Spotlight to Showcase Sourcing Prowess

Alibaba wants to be the first-choice sourcing destination for small and mid-size businesses across verticals and around the world—and it’s using tech to make that goal a reality.

With more than 170,000 suppliers active on its platform, Alibaba gives sourcing managers an end-to-end tool to handle the entire process from vendor consideration to communication to completed product. Artificial intelligence-based real-time language translation facilitates voice-to-voice conversations between parties with a natural language barrier. Suppliers can capture videos of their manufacturing facilities and give potential buyers a virtual reality sneak peak of life on the factory floor.

Prospects can still search the platform using text-based inputs but as an alternative can leverage visual search to snap a photo of what they’re hoping to produce and match with relevant suppliers. These are some of the critical ways, global head of Zhang Kuo told Sourcing Journal in an interview at CES, that Alibaba uses technology to make a meaningful impact and in doing so eliminate the uncertainties inherent to sourcing from partners thousands of miles away.

John Caplan, head of Alibaba B2B North America, said sourcing on the platform helps to reduce the number of physical samples required before committing to production and allows for finished goods to be manufactured just 30 days after vendor selection. Though at its core it’s a sourcing platform, Alibaba is seeing buy-in not just from sourcing managers but a company’s CFO and creative director as well, Caplan explained. The financial executives appreciate that the streamlined platform enables effective management of working capital while designers appreciate the breadth of vendor choice and sourcing pros like the all-in-one repository that preserves each detail of the production journey.

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Caplan described Alibaba’s Trade Assurance guarantee as the secret sauce that gives buyers the confidence to take the “risk” of purchasing from a supplier sight unseen. “The heart of global trade is trust and certainty,” he explained, noting that Trade Assurance functions like an escrow that doesn’t release funds to a supplier until the buyer is satisfied with the final product.

“We’re a competitive advantage if you’re a small business because you can have 10 suppliers but manage them all in one all place,” Caplan added. “Innovation that helps the world’s small business is a good thing—wherever it comes from.”

To hear Caplan tell it, Alibaba isn’t so much innovating as it is bringing a notoriously late-adopter industry into the modern era. “I don’t think we’re disrupting the apparel business,” he said. “We’re helping the creative people in apparel run their business more effectively.”

Alibaba took advantage of the CES spotlight to unveil new features for suppliers and buyers. It’s digitizing the trade show experience, Zhang said, bringing the physical “offline” experience into the Alibaba mobile app and website by encouraging suppliers exhibiting at CES to upload videos of their booths and products so that others could follow the action from around the globe and see new innovation unfold. Myriad Alibaba suppliers already share Tik Tok-style videos of their goods and services and the new trade shows feature takes that in-the-moment content one step further.

Alibaba will be digitizing a total of 30 events, including the MAGIC trade show in Las Vegas held from Feb. 5-7.