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Will Alibaba and its 40 million Accomplices Ride Roughshod Over Corporate America?

As factories move to China, middlemen are removed & what happens to the retailers? Vivek Sood uses Alibaba (Chinese ecommerce) as a case study to explore this further

Now that all the factories have move to China (or some such places as Vietnam, Bangladesh, Taiwan), and all the customers have moved to the PC (or some such places as mobile phones or tablets) what will happen to all the middlemen? The retailers, the wholesalers, the shopping centres, the warehouse parks, the dealers, the brands, the long established cosy relationships, the long martini lunches, the twice weekly afternoon golf games and the executive chefs in the board rooms?
 
Many people are asking this question in many different ways. While the scenario above has not transpired, and, yet may never transpire in such a stark detail, many companies are starting to ask what if that happens.
 
Consider, for instance, all the happenings at Alibaba. The Chinese e-commerce giant went public in the US with an IPO that stirred the world at large and the online retailing world in particular. If you are wondering about the reason, then consider the numbers below.
 
 
In 2013, the combined transaction volume of Taobao and another Alibaba-run shopping site called Tmall reached $240 billion, says a person with knowledge of the figure.
 
The total is more than double the size of Amazon.com Inc, triple the size of eBay and one-third larger than the value of all the transactions last year at the two U.S.-based e-commerce giants combined.
 
People stood up to take notice only when there were widely reported news reports that just in one day (the Chinese version of Black Friday), Alibaba achieved nearly $5.75 billion in sales (on just one of its website), which was three times more sales than the entire country of USA achieved on Black Friday.
 
Reportedly, almost the entire valuation of Yahoo is based on the value of the shares it holds in Alibaba.com. More such amazing facts are available from this report on Business Insider
 
As per The Economist, analysts predict that the Alibaba IPO will value the company somewhere between $55 billion and more than $120 billion.
 
That would make it the most valuable 5-STAR Business Network on earth – with transactions reportedly surpassing $1 Trillion a year soon.
 
 Lately, Alibaba has partnered with US company ShopRunner to bring American goods to China. It has also been active in “shopping” for lucrative relationships with retailers, buying shares instead of acquiring the whole business.
 
This is obviously only the beginning of its full potential - although B2B exchanges have been in the offing for nearly 15 years now. Many are warning that as B2B exchanges mature into adulthood, they could easily start to restructure the whole global supply chains. 
 
No wonder the entire media world is going gaga over Alibaba’s prospects. Even those who recognise the hype cannot help but wonder if the sad state of retail is somehow connected to the seemingly unstoppable Alibaba force and the trend it heralds.
 
For example, one highly respected fellow blogger (Steven Dennis) recently stated in his blog
 
As a former Sears senior executive I’ve followed the once mighty brand’s journey from mediocrity to bad to just plain sad. What a long strange trip it’s been.
 
When I left in late 2003 we were gaining traction in our core full-line department store business and piloting several important growth initiatives. To be fair, whether we could pull off the necessary transformation was highly questionable. But one thing is now certain. The subsequent actions taken under a decade of Eddie Lampert’s leadership have assured the retailer’s demise.
 
So, what will happen to the retailers, the shopping malls, the brands and the dealers? Will Alibaba, and its Chinese direct suppliers kill all these?
 
Not so fast! While e-commerce is changing the face of corporate America, there are many reasons Alibaba will not be as successful as projected by the alarmists.
 
Firstly, there is another company to think about - a home-grown version of it. A yet unknown part of Amazon is AmazonSupply. Predictive shipping and unmanned drones are made more prominent in the news agenda. Meanwhile, Amazon’s “unsexy” B2B business, a “$8 trillion bet”, has been growing silently in the background, perhaps making it eight times bigger than Alibaba and the biggest 5-STAR Business Network on earth. 
  
 
AmazonSupply, a wholesale and distribution hub, started in 2005 and has grown to carry 2.2 million products, ranging from office equipment to industrial components, materials and more.  After nearly 15 years of languishing on the wayside, the B2B exchanges are finally coming true, slowly.
 
Already, wholesalers are whispering about the threats from AmazonSupply; although many specialty wholesalers and distributors are somewhat confident that their turf is safe from the giant’s claws due to their highly segmented market. 
 
Nonetheless, nobody knows what will happen in future. AmazonSupply, Alibaba, or B2B exchanges, could become so powerful that they will suck small players into their enormous vacuum of suppliers. The process can even accelerate if trust keeping mechanisms are built into B2B exchanges.
 
Seller and buyer ratings, as well as seller/buyer protection seen on sites such as eBay and PayPal are not enough to cover the sheer size of B2B transactions. Even the current rating system on Alibaba will not suffice, should this attractive market grow in the years to come. 
 
The current trust keeping mechanism in international trade is Letter of Credits, which has been around for hundreds of years. It is defined by Investopedia as:
 
“A letter from a bank guaranteeing that a buyer's payment to a seller will be received on time and for the correct amount. In the event that the buyer is unable to make payment on the purchase, the bank will be required to cover the full or remaining amount of the purchase.”
 
To keep up with the pace of change, new supply chain finance mechanisms must evolve, something that can deal with the increasingly globalised supply chains.
 
Only with sustained focus on supply chain finance, can B2B exchanges morph into true 5-STAR Business Networks. While traditional sources of supply chain finance have a vested interest in keeping the status quo, new supply chain finance mechanisms have been slow to emerge and remain an opportunity for the likes of Amazon, PayPal and Alibaba. If they crack that nut, the rest is open slather. Once these mechanisms break through, the face of global supply chains and global commerce will change for good.