An executive from Alibaba North America tells PSFK how the company is enabling other businesses to be better ecommerce retailers is a global B2B marketplace that connects buyers and sellers around the world. What started as a listing platform has evolved into an end-to-end trade platform that streamlines the entire process.

PSFK spoke to John Caplan, Head of Alibaba North America B2B, to find out more about how the company is using its learnings from the retail space in order to improve the B2B customer experience and serve as an ally to small businesses in North America by allowing them to buy and sell more easily.

PSFK: Could you explain the evolution of Alibaba’s presence in North America?

John Caplan: has actually been in North America for 19 years. It was the original business that Jack Ma started with the mission to leverage the power of the internet to make it easy to do business anywhere, and later evolved into what is the ecommerce ecosystem that is Alibaba Group today.

But for the first 18 or so years, was a listing platform—think Yellow Pages primarily for Chinese suppliers to sell to buyers abroad. While the platform enjoyed steady growth—and has over 170K suppliers and millions of buyers around the world—it was not enough to meet the needs and expectations of our business customers.

We knew there was a better way, and so evolved from a listing platform to an end-to-end trade platform that handles the process for the buyers and sellers, from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world.’s mission is to make it easy to do business anywhere. We are determined to be the ally to North American small businesses to help them buy and sell more easily. In the words of our founder, Jack Ma, “we are not an ecommerce company; we are a company helping others become ecommerce companies.”

What are some current retail trends that you're seeing impact/ influence your business now?

Retail trends are affecting us in two ways. First is customer experience. As people, our business customers are experiencing increasing intelligence, convenience, personalization and seamlessness in retail experiences in their “private lives,” and so they also demand a similar level of CX from their business platforms—including ours. So we need to keep up, and focus on how we can innovate and disrupt customer experiences in the B2B realm.

Similarly, as our customers’ customers demand more—greater levels of service, customization and accountability—we work hard to ensure that we are helping our customers excel in all those areas as well, by providing them with the tools, expertise and services they need.

How does Alibaba use data and technology to help small businesses and entrepreneurs in North America find the right suppliers for their needs and optimize their supply chains?

We’ve digitized all the points in the customer journey, including inventory management and product display. We are working with partners within and outside of Alibaba Group to create an ecosystem that offers payment services, logistics services, loan services etc.

That means: a buyer can now look up suppliers anywhere in the world—both near and far, communicate with them directly, issue request for quotations, draft product specs and contracts, arrange for inspections, customs clearance and shipping, pay and finance for the products all on one platform. It also means growing our supplier base to include companies from outside of China, including plans to grow exponentially in North America.

Small businesses and entrepreneurs have the same resources and access as their larger counterparts. When it comes to sourcing and selling, small businesses around the world face challenges and barriers ranging from language, distance, pricing, foreign exchange rates, logistics, etc.

By bringing the entire sourcing and selling process online to our platform, is removing these barriers one by one. So the only thing our business entrepreneur customers need to do is focus on their business. We manage everything else.

How does Alibaba aim to improve the B2B experience for its customers in North America? What gaps does it fill in the marketplace/supply chain?

For U.S. small businesses that look to source, we help reduce barriers associated with size, language and distance. Specifically, we provide:
• A single platform solution across all product categoried—customized/standardized, direct/indirect, global/local, etc.
• Local (industry specific) sales and service support
• Trade-related services and support, e.g., financing, business services, fast delivery and logistics
• Market intelligence, sales and marketing support for their products

For SMB sellers, this means:
• Increased access to buyers, and greater demand for their products, including higher order frequency and volume
• Reduced costs for supply chain services, including local warehousing
• Alternative distribution channels, include direct access to consumers (retail)
• Market intelligence, sales and marketing support for their products

How does the “Request for Quotation” service make the process of finding a supplier more seamless?

Request for Quote (or RFQ) is the fastest and easiest way for buyers to receive quotes on products from different suppliers. By filling out a form that clearly communicates specs and releasing the RFQ, a buyer can get estimates from multiple suppliers, compare quotes, contact the Supplier and source the product.

Additional paid-for services like “Urgent request” and “Extra quote” prioritizes your request above all others to provide a faster response, and gets you double the views and show your interest as a buyer, respectively.

How are suppliers and manufacturers vetted?

All suppliers on the platform are vetted by Alibaba. “Chinese Gold Suppliers” are vetted through on-site checks; “Gold Plus Suppliers” are further vetted and verified through detailed inspections. In addition, each supplier on the platform receives a “star rating” to communicate the supplier’s performance history on the platform.

Are there stats you can share about the growth of the North American B2B business?

In the last fiscal year, there were over four million orders from North American buyers on the platform. We expect that number to at least double this year. We will also be growing the volume of sales by North American sellers through the platform in the next year.

Are there any plans to implement a retail/B2C model in the U.S. in the future?

Our current focus in North America is B2B. But as mentioned, we are borrowing learnings and experiences from retail to disrupt the B2B model and experiences in the U.S.


For more from PSFK on China three largest retail players—Alibaba,, and Tencent—download the China Retail Debrief.