The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted business for most distributors, with the ensuing, ongoing economic crisis amplifying the need for companies to adopt digital technologies.
Like, right now, according to John Caplan, president, North America and Europe, Alibaba.com.
“COVID has taught us that it's not a question of if you should be digital, it's a question of how quickly you can be digital,” Caplan said on the most recent episode of MDM Live. “I think we’ve seen 20 years of acceleration in digital in the last two months. If you're a distributor in America today, you’ve got to get digital — quick.”
Caplan joined MDM CEO Tom Gale and Indian River Consulting Group Managing Partner Mike Marks on the latest installment of MDM’s weekly series about how distributors are responding to COVID-19.
During the hourlong discussion, Caplan discussed ways that Alibaba.com helps distributors and suppliers connect on the company’s marketplace. The China-based online giant has been operating in the U.S. for the past 19 years and its growth in nearly two decades here is staggering.
As of March, Alibaba.com, a business unit of Alibaba Group, has 13.1 million active buyers globally, with 290,036 daily product inquiries and a marketplace that reaches more than 190 countries. The world is flat at least partially because of Alibaba.com, which helps distributors tap into new markets and more adeptly navigate an increasingly complex economy amid this pandemic.
“When you join a platform like ours, you can reach a global audience,” Caplan said.
Never Too Late to Go Digital
The crux of Caplan’s MDM Live appearance was the importance of going digital. To borrow from the adage about planting a tree: The best time to have cultivated digital capabilities was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.
The pandemic has created an inflection point for wholesale distribution that is likely to separate the businesses that have adopted new technologies and those that haven’t. But how does one get digital? Caplan shared some beginning points for distributors.
“You need to have good email technology,” he said. “You’ve got to have good social technology. You’ve got to have good content around your products. You need to have a marketplace strategy — which we hope Alibaba.com will be the cornerstone of, but there are alternatives you can consider, and you have to weigh the pros and cons of each of them.”
While the early bird gets the worm, Caplan said on the show, it’s not too late to adopt a digital mindset. And not only does he expect to see more distributors rush to platforms like Alibaba.com., but he also sees such a wholesale shift around the digital experience that some new sales and C-suite titles will soon be commonplace at distribution companies — “digital sales executive” and even a “chief digital revenue officer.”
“[Digital] has to be a priority for a business owner,” Caplan said. “Just like for the folks in the B2C space had that first social media executive — that kid the college kid that was off in the corner and no one quite knew what she or he did, but they knew they were the ones who did Facebook and Twitter — well, I think companies need to make that commitment to have that person who does the marketplace selling and learns the platforms, feels the platforms and the rhythms of them. I think those changes are coming.”
Alibaba.com continues looking for ways to help businesses grow. On June 2, the company announced three new products and services intended to allow U.S. small businesses to access digital logistics to source globally, alleviate cash flow with 60-day payment terms, and connect U.S. manufacturers and wholesalers with buyers through online trade shows. Look for more on that latter point in the next issue of MDM Premium.
Hear much more from Caplan — including more inspiration for taking your business digital, tips on getting started with Alibaba.com and practical advice on how to sell internationally — by watching the latest MDM Live.
And join us on Friday, June 19, at 2 p.m. EDT for this week’s MDM Live, featuring more discussion about how distributors are responding to COVID-19.