The number of Italian Small and Medium Enterprises selling online has increased by 10% since the beginning of the pandemic. These are the results of the research conducted by Ups in collaboration with Nathan Associates, Confartigianato Imprese, Federvini, Unioncamere and Pin-Polo Universitario Città di Prato of the University of Florence, according to which the number of companies present online with their own sales channel would rise from 47% in 2021 to 57% in 2022. Italy thus ranks 20th in the e-Trade Alliance’s ranking of the best countries in the world for SMEs for eCommerce. But that’s not all. More than half of the companies surveyed stated that, thanks to eCommerce, exporting has now become easier.
We discussed the topic with Luca Curtarelli, Country Manager Italy, Spain & Portugal Alibaba.com, the Chinese e-commerce giant.
Luca, thank you for your willingness to answer some of our questions. Let’s start right away with an upstream question: what mission does Alibaba.com set itself and what services does it offer to businesses?
Alibaba Group’s mission is to “make it easy to do business anywhere in the world”. Alibaba.com, the first business unit founded by the Alibaba Group, is the world’s leading B2B marketplace connecting buyers and sellers, supporting SMEs in their digital transformation and expansion into international markets.
Alibaba.com offers the technological infrastructure, but also the possibility for sellers to reach 190 countries worldwide and 26 million active buyers, and for buyers to find excellence, be it components and parts to produce their own products, or finished products to resell wholesale or retail.
There is much more: we have an important ecosystem of partners, activities and educational webinars to learn what it means and what the keys to successful digital exporting are, as well as clearly a dedicated team that can support and respond to our customers to make sure the platform is used to its full potential.
We work to develop and spread the strategic skills for export-oriented online sales among Italian SMEs. Precisely to help them increase their digital skills, we started the Edu Export Bootcamp. In 2021, we have dedicated a month of full immersion to teach them everything they need to become experts in exporting around the world, precisely because we at Alibaba.com are committed to supporting, stimulating and encouraging the culture of doing business online, anywhere and easily.
Alibaba.com defines itself as a data technology company. So what does this mean and what role does technological innovation play?
Technology is key. Starting from communication, within the platform all cultural and language barriers are cancelled thanks to a simultaneous translation service in almost 20 languages that applies to company and product descriptions, marketplace showcases, messaging and negotiation, giving the possibility to conclude agreements with foreign countries even if only speaking Italian, in real time.
Clearly there is much more, and here I refer to the use of the platform in all its potential. In fact, we offer back-end functionality, i.e. sales insights and data that can help sellers to better calibrate their offerings, helping them to drive enquiries and sales, allowing them to accurately forecast demand and plan future assortment, and last but not least, SEO optimisation.
Italy was the first European country to have a local Alibaba.com team. Why? What business opportunities does it offer?
The Italian office of Alibaba Group was established in 2015, to date establishing a presence throughout Europe.
As of 2019 we also have a local Alibaba.com team based in Milan, the first for this business unit in continental Europe. The excellence of Made in Italy is recognised all over the world and we have seen a steady growth in demand for Italian products.
The business opportunities are countless, and by closely following the companies we hear extraordinary stories every day: there are Made in Italy excellences that have reached Peru and other countries that they would otherwise not have reached.
What is the relationship of Italian companies with digital and eCommerce?
Better and better, and I would like to bring a positive message based on what I and my team see every day. The Italian entrepreneurial fabric, in many sectors, boasts great tradition, quality and unique craftsmanship and is moving to embrace innovation to expand its markets. Some were already open to digital and export, others have only recently entered the scene but I strongly feel their demand and desire to be part of a global business that enriches the reach of their offer in the world. We see that new figures are also being created, completely dedicated to online business, such as the Digital Export Manager. Alibaba.com has recently carried out a study in collaboration with Euromonitor International to frame the state of the art of the sector and outline the trends for the near future.
What has transpired? What should we expect for the future?
“The Future of B2B E-Commerce: Online Platforms” is an independent study by Euromonitor International in cooperation with Alibaba.com, which investigated the future of the B2B e-commerce sector by involving B2B buyers and sellers from Italy, Germany and Spain. From a global analysis of the current B2B e-commerce environment, it emerged strongly that the pandemic has been an accelerating factor in the move towards digital commerce. In this context, while large companies have been able to adapt quickly, for SMEs, the change of strategy has been slower due in part to a lack of resources and access to information on the possibilities offered by the platforms, leading them to focus more on working with established partners. What the B2B leaders of SMEs and large companies have in common, however, is that they see the shift to e-commerce as increasingly important for the life of their businesses. Companies within the B2B e-commerce sector are expected to implement the use of an increasing variety of strategies to establish business connections, including improving their online presence, while at the same time continuing to attend trade shows whenever possible
In the comprehensive overview of the challenges, needs and future trends of business-to-business e-commerce, it emerged that the volume of orders being placed online is growing and expanding geographically. It is therefore crucial for B2B sellers to create or strengthen their presence. Looking then at B2B buyers, we saw that they expect the future to be ‘hybrid’ and to continue to leverage traditional sourcing channels, including attendance at trade fairs in person, while they will increasingly rely on online platforms as part of a two-pronged approach to sourcing, which have proven to be efficient for ease of transaction execution across all sectors and markets.
What problems or opportunities has the pandemic posed for your business?
The pandemic has accelerated trends that were already underway, such as the digital transformation of companies, from the largest to small and medium-sized enterprises. As mentioned earlier, Alibaba’s mission is to make it easy to do business anywhere in the digital age, and we worked hard to ensure that our customers could continue to do business despite the pandemic. Thus, alongside traditional channels, we launched virtual trade fairs and livestreaming.
What is the secret to a successful export strategy on Alibaba.com?
I can summarise in a few key pieces of advice that we always give to companies and that companies themselves also give to each other: take time to set up the shop window, respond quickly to enquiries and analyse analytics, adopt medium- to long-term strategies, and rely on a partner when you do not have the resources and knowledge to manage the channel.
On our blog we talked about the phenomenon of ‘shoppertainment‘. Is this something that in your opinion can also be applied to the B2B world?
Absolutely, and we have already implemented this as one of the sales channels during the pandemic. Among the different forms of shoppertainment we have used livestreams, which are now considered important shopping opportunities due to the possibility to visualise the product in a complete and comprehensive way. Livestreams reinforce the bond of trust and immediacy typical of traditional shopping by replicating them in a digital environment. For example, Alibaba.com provides buyers with some of its technological innovations in this area, including Factory Livestreams and the Virtual Reality Showroom. Through these digital channels, buyers can visit suppliers’ factories, wherever they are in the world, and generate new sourcing possibilities. We can describe it as a paradigm shift, coating a channel that we have always seen as consumer-only with B2B, and it has been greatly appreciated by our customers.
We would like to thank Luca Curtarelli for speaking on our blog and we look forward to seeing you in the next interview, and of course in the next articles that you can find updated weekly on the GEL Proximity website.