Alibaba is now the world’s most valuable global retail brand, a position it usurped from fellow ecommerce giant Amazon. Online retailers are big money, there’s no denying it, but what makes Alibaba’s practice unique is that it is aimed towards getting businesses onto its platform rather than presenting itself as a seller. This allows it to work with retailers and brands rather than compete with them. The goal is to attract more sellers to the Alibaba marketplace, and for that purpose the company is undergoing ambitious plans to expand its presence in Europe. At the centre of this is its UK hub, run by the recently appointed UK MD UK, Amee Chande.
Chande has worked up a lengthy track record in the retail industry. Following her first role at a Hallmarks Card store, she went on to take key positions in internationally traded companies including Walmart, Staples and Tesco, and was voted as one of the ‘Top 40 under 40’ by the Boston Business Journal.
Across her professional career Chande has lived and worked in four continents, and her wealth of experience with international retailers is a key qualification for her new job. She has been “on the other side of the fence to Alibaba,” and can “see what the need is from the point of view of the very companies that we are now trying to serve.”
Speaking to Retail Gazette, Chande accredited this lesson to her time working on shop floors. Even with ecommerce, it’s necessary to “put yourselves in the shoes of the customer," she says.
"Now the shoes of our customers are the businesses trying to build their business in China. It’s very important for me that I continue to stay close to them, be they small or large. My job is to not lose sight and to stay really close to their struggles and concerns as they continue to expand themselves in China.”
Chande is currently learning the Chinese language and has spent time in the country and as we spoke it became clear that she has a deep understanding of Chinese ecommerce that goes way beyond objective Western views.
“After spending just a month in China I recognise how different, and in some cases behind, the UK and US markets are compared to the penetration and pervasiveness of online shopping in China.
In China there was no established retail structure, and mobile devices are the primary way of accessing the internet. The combination of the two means more categories are more firmly established in ecommerce, and mobiles are the most common form of shopping online.
Because of that companies work harder and the bar is higher for attracting customers. There is more innovation around ecommerce and mobile shopping.”
The high level of penetration ecommerce has in China is a big part of Alibaba’s success. The company even hosts annual events such as the ‘Singles Day’ sales, which are bigger than both Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and have seen British retailers sprinting to make their goods available.
Indeed, figures from tourist sales as well as Chinese importing have shown that the growing Chinese middle class has a great affinity for British goods. However, this is more than a simple case of anglophilia.
“The Chinese consumer is not that different from one in the West. The basic goods they’re looking for from overseas are exactly the same as we would buy here: quality food products, home and health products. They’re looking overseas either because they’re not available in their home market or they are looking for the assurance of quality and safety. Many of what we would consider petty or standard items are in high demand overseas.”
At the same time, there is certainly an appreciation for ‘British’ goods. Sainsbury’s, for example, exports tea and biscuits in large numbers to China although other European companies such as Ikea also enjoy popularity amongst the Chinese.
“As the Chinese economy matures and borders come down, there’s just more awareness of the cultures, products and experiences with other parts of the world.”
With this in mind, Alibaba is determined to increase the availability of foreign goods for Chinese customers, hence its investment in international expansion. The company hired former Goldman Sachs executive Michael Evans as its President this year, to be in charge of the company’s international growth strategy. Chande will be reporting directly to him.
“Right now our focus is on helping British companies access the Chinese market. It’s about letting companies understand how to access the best of Alibaba.
What Alibaba does is build the infrastructure of ecommerce. People aren’t shopping on Alibaba, but in a marketplace where they access the branches and products of thousands and thousands of merchant sellers.
As we built that successfully in China we’re now saying ‘let’s make sure businesses around the world have access to this structure’.”
Though the company has only recently redoubled its efforts in this regards, Alibaba has had a presence in the UK for some time now. While there has not been a UK specific Managing Director before, or this level of commitment to increasing Alibaba’s renown among British businesses, the UK will come to be the website’s main stepping stone into Europe.
“We are using the presence we have here as a natural place to start as we build up technical expertise for our platforms in the UK and Europe. We have offices elsewhere in Europe to understand core differences in languages and the nuances of localities. We want to bring the best of European brands to China. The closer we can get to the businesses that offer that, the more successful we will be in bringing these brands back to China.”
In a period of unprecedented growth for Alibaba, what kind of managing director does Chande hope to be?
“If you’re passionate about what you’re doing then you have a much, much higher chance of success, and when you’re happy people around you are more inclined to follow. Management is about helping others do the best and be the best that they can, and the best thing you can do is role model it.
Alibaba is not short on opportunities and their values are very, very strong. I’m looking forward to building a team in Europe as strong as the one in China.”