SAN FRANCISCO/BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China's Alibaba Group Holding Ltd (BABA.N) plans a major move to win U.S. business this year, by offering American retailers new ways to sell to China's vast and growing middle class.
Anchored by Alipay, the dominant Chinese electronic payments system that works closely with Alibaba and is controlled by its executives, the world's largest Internet retailer is using the calling card of China's consumers to attract U.S. partners, two sources close to the company told Reuters.
Long seen as the most potent threat to Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O) with $300 billion in global sales, the moves add up to a conservative approach to expanding in the United States, contrary to industry speculation that the company may be plotting a direct assault on U.S. soil.
That considered strategy, outlined to Reuters for the first time by the sources and executives who work directly with the Chinese company, is intended to heighten awareness in the United States of what Alibaba does, gain goodwill in an important Western market, and lay the groundwork for a longer-term play.
At the heart of its push are Alibaba's and Alipay's trial deals to handle Chinese sales, payment and shipping for some of the biggest names in U.S. retail from Neiman Marcus Group [NMRCUS.UL] to Saks Inc. Both confirmed the agreement but would not talk about how the pilots are faring.
The Chinese companies will also work with U.S. startup Shoprunner, an online mall for U.S. retailers in which it owns a stake, and retail services provider Borderfree Inc BRDR.O to court Chinese consumers.
And Alibaba is preparing a marketing campaign to raise awareness among U.S. businesses of its global business-to-business wholesale platform, Alibaba.com, so they can buy and sell to and from global suppliers.
"They own the toll road into China," said Michael DeSimone, Chief Executive Officer of Borderfree. "What really puts the jetpack on things when you deal with an Alipay is, they're on the ground and they know the Chinese consumer so well."
Industry insiders point to just $15 billion in annual U.S.-to-China, cross-border consumer sales now. But Daiwa estimates cross-border purchases, which exclude sales of American products within the country, can grow to 1.8 trillion yuan ($291 billion) by 2020.
"It’s not a big thing right now, but within the next 12 to 18 months what you’ll see more of is bringing 300 million Chinese consumers to retailers in the U.S.," Alibaba Vice Chairman Joseph Tsai said in an interview with Reuters last year. He laid out the broad plan, and sources have now described details.
Still, there's no guarantee of success.
China's middle class is over 250 million strong and growing, spurred by government policy to create a more consumer-driven economy. Apple iPhones and General Motors cars have become big-selling status symbols, but the market remains a challenge for Western companies, especially those lacking a global footprint. Home Depot Inc decided in 2012 to shut all seven of its big box China stores, while in December, Best Buy said it will sell its struggling China business.
And Alibaba's 10-month-old effort to help foreign retailers set up shop in China, Tmall Global - its business-to-consumer website, has had muted success. Of 5,000-plus brands and 650 merchants that now sell on that site, just 30 have accumulated more than 10 million yuan in sales, according to the company.
But there are signs of traction. Costco Wholesale Corp (COST.O), which began selling on Tmall Global in November, saw sales of more than 40 million yuan in its first month of operations, according to data Alibaba provided to Reuters. And the site has attracted some 90 million unique visitors since launch, buying from 90 percent of listed merchants.
Part of Alibaba's aim is to counter official concerns about Chinese mega-corporations. In 2014, Alibaba hired former Treasury chief of staff James Wilkinson to help tailor its international strategy, and it has enlisted Korn Ferry to search for a Washington-based international government affairs chief.
Alipay and a logistics-partner network that took years to assemble are central to Alibaba's U.S. effort.
Major brands, such as Nike, that have a large physical presence in China already sell directly on Tmall. But Alipay's effort directly connects American merchants with China, without the need for investment in a physical presence.
It also allows U.S. retailers and Chinese consumers to avoid difficulties associated with foreign exchange. Chinese consumers pay in yuan; U.S. companies get paid in dollars.
Alibaba's and Alipay's program for U.S. companies is called ePass. It includes a customs pre-approval process, a sort of "fast lane" that shaves days off delivery. Daiwa analysts John Choi and Alex Liu call that capability Alibaba's biggest advantage over rivals such as JD.com (JD.O).
Alibaba and Alipay have made pilot agreements to handle payments and shipping to China for department stores Neiman, Saks, Macy's Inc (M.N), Macy's Bloomingdale's chain, Ann Taylor, luxury fashion site Gilt, and apparel label Aeropostale ARO.N, according to Borderfree. The companies declined to comment, although Neiman, Saks and Ann Taylor confirmed the deal.
If a Chinese consumer bought a pair of shoes from Saks, for instance, Alipay would handle the financial transaction. The shoes go to a U.S.-based Alipay facility that handles the transfer to China. After clearing customs, a local partner typically would handle final delivery.
Alibaba has even taken on a role akin to a cultural liaison for U.S. retailers. Tracey Weber, chief operating officer of online retailer Gilt, said that as their Alipay trial progressed, the Chinese company began increasingly to help with marketing and even product selection: advising them to use more red for instance, or to more prominently display cross-body handbags popular in China.
"It is such a different environment," she said.
Shoprunner, meanwhile, hired an ex-Amazon executive to head up a new Shanghai office last year, and Chief Executive Scott Thompson said the startup is preparing a major marketing campaign in China in 2015.
Alibaba also aims to draw in more U.S. businesses to its Alibaba.com portal, as buyers and sellers. One strategy is to reduce the number of counterfeit goods, a major problem in China and a concern for companies considering sharing intellectual property such as technology and designs.
To that end, Alibaba has enlisted data company Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp, among others, to beef up a supplier-certification program it hopes will help draw in many of the estimated 27 million small-time American businesses and manufacturers that now operate mostly offline.
Validation could allow both sides to assure themselves that they are working with legitimate partners.
Jeff Stibel, who is heading up Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp's effort with Alibaba, said integration was starting, and it will launch its certification program early this year.
Alibaba also has some plans to sell to Americans.
Alibaba has a small U.S.-based portal, 11Main.com, a collection of Internet storefronts for smaller businesses and products from yoga mats to scented candles. While it focuses on U.S. consumers, a quarter of its 1.4 million listed products can already be shipped to Asia. It hopes eventually to help sellers gain access to Alibaba's U.S.-Chinese corridor, 11Main President Mike Effle told Reuters.
Alibaba.com itself is an avenue to sell to Americans, as businessman Michael Sorrentino found at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year.
The chief executive of smartphone case maker Eyepatch estimates about 20 percent of U.S. retailers he spoke with asked if they could buy his gear through Alibaba.com.
"That quickly taught me, whether I'm familiar or not with that platform, that I need to be on it," he said.
(This story corrects to spell out full name of company in paragraph 26)
Additional reporting by Malathi Nayak and Deepa Seetharamanin San Francisco and Nathan Layne in Chicago; editing by Peter Henderson, Martin Howell and Bernard Orr