To achieve optimal cost-effectiveness, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Hong Kong are increasingly using digital channels to source partners and close business deals.
"Today, a wealth of online services have been developed to complement traditional business channels for both importers and exporters," says Andy Lau, head of sales, Hong Kong, Alibaba.com.
Alibaba.com is the world's leading business-to-business e-commerce company, connecting 36 million registered users from more than 240 countries and regions through three virtual platforms: an English-language marketplace (alibaba.com) for global importers and exporters; a Chinese-language one (alibaba.com.cn) for domestic trade in China; and through a joint venture, a Japanese-language portal (alibaba.co.jp), facilitating trade to and from Japan.
SMEs are the backbone of global economic growth, yet they have very little representation, Mr Lau notes. "We therefore aim to help SMEs participate in global trade and stay competitive through the internet," he says, adding that small businesses are more adept at different market situations in order to maximise profits.
While the current economic downturn affects most companies, Alibaba.com sees the challenging business environment as an opportunity to strengthen its position.
The company plans to invest US$30 million in a global advertising campaign in 2009, raising brand awareness in key buyer markets such as Hong Kong, the US, the UK, Germany, Australia and emerging markets such as Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
Regarding further sales and marketing tactics, Mr Lau says fostering customer loyalty is crucial. "For this reason, we will continue to develop new features and tools for both buyers and suppliers," he expands.
One of the company's latest tools is a "Quality supplier programme", which aims to deliver improved sourcing experiences to international buyers by enhancing the quality and reliability of suppliers. Another one is a "Gold supplier starter pack", a newly introduced entry-level product that will extend the company's premium storefront service to a broader group of export suppliers in core customer markets in mainland China, as well as new markets such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. Mr Lau remarks, "This will help customers shift their businesses online and operate more efficiently."
Another key growth strategy for Alibaba.com is to upsize its marketplaces by expanding the company's user base and active listings globally, targeting emerging markets such as India, as well as developed markets in Europe and Japan, among others. "We are more than an online community. We stay close to our customers and listen to their needs, while offering a broad range of tailor-made products and services to suppliers and buyers," he adds.
Alibaba.com membership, renewable on an annual basis, provides customers with a range of free basic features such as standard supplier storefronts, product listings and communication tools anytime anywhere.
"We also offer paid membership packages for businesses that require premium storefronts, unlimited product listings, priority placement in search results, authentication or trust profiles. By purchasing value-added services such as keyword bidding and premium placement, members can expect good returns. This helps to generate more exposure for suppliers and to create enquiry opportunities," Mr Lau stresses.
Despite economic uncertainties, Alibaba.com still sees a healthy growth in registered users. This suggests that e-commerce becomes even more important and cost-effective in a difficult environment. Mr Lau says, "SMEs are attending fewer overseas trade shows and relying more on e-commerce to conduct business both internationally and domestically."
Mr Lau believes e-commerce will gain further momentum in the short term and he is always looking out for high-calibre candidates who do not necessarily have to possess extensive experience in the trade. "We tend to favour candidates with strong communication skills and an eagerness to learn," he says.
Before making sales calls or pitches, new recruits receive a series of on-the-job training and two weeks of additional training in Hangzhou to enhance their understanding of the company's products and core values.
Most importantly, says Mr Lau, the company is looking for recruits who have the mental capacity for change.