This Online Retailer Does Way More Business Than Amazon, and You’ve Probably Never Heard of It

Photo (cc) by charles chan *

Watch out, Jeff Bezos. Jack Ma is knocking on the door.

Bezos, the founder of Amazon, may soon find himself going head-to-head with Ma’s China-based e-commerce giant, Alibaba. Already, Alibaba is the world’s largest sales site, with nearly $250 billion in transactions last year. That’s more than Amazon and eBay combined.

While Alibaba may be a force to be reckoned with globally, 80 percent of online sales in China are made through an Alibaba site, the company has yet to make inroads in the West. But that may change now that Ma has taken his company public in the U.S., in the stock market’s largest initial public offering on record, no less.

If you’ve never heard of Alibaba, you’re in good company. A September poll found that 88 percent of Americans were unaware of the business. Whether you’re part of that 88 percent or not, keep reading to learn more about the firm and if you’ll soon be trading in your Amazon bookmark for an Alibaba one.

Alibaba: One company hoping to rule them all

Part of what makes Alibaba unique is its diversity. It’s not just a retail store. It’s not just a wholesale junction. It’s not just a finance provider.

It’s all that plus more rolled up in a series of websites that feature lots of bright colors, blinking words and an adorable cat graphic that serves as a loading icon. Here are some of the most notable parts of the Alibaba empire:

  • Alibaba. Go to Alibaba.com, and you’ll come to an English language site offering wholesale products of every kind. You can search for specific products or submit an inquiry and let multiple vendors respond. If you want to buy 10 tons of canned mackerel or 500 laptop bags, this is the site for you.
  • AliExpress. Catering to global buyers, this English language site offers both bulk purchases and individual items for sale. It has something of an eBay feel to it with similar types of listings and a seller rating system.
  • Taobao. Taobao works along the same lines as AliExpress except it’s in Chinese. You can buy everything under the sun here, although counterfeit products are said to be a problem. Oh, and if you need to wake up in the morning, Taobao might be able to help. Holy bright colors, Batman!
  • TMall. Another Chinese site, TMall offers storefront space for major brands such as Adidas and P&G to sell their goods.
  • Juhuasuan. A subset of TMall, Juhuasuan is a group buying site. Think: Chinese Groupon or LivingSocial.
  • Alipay. This is Alibaba’s answer to PayPal, with the added benefit of acting as an escrow service when needed. An English language version of the site is available for global customers.
  • Laiwang. As Alibaba’s social media/chat app, Laiwang apparently envisions a world in which we are all lemons.

Should you be shopping on Alibaba?

With so much recent hype about Alibaba, you may be wondering if you are missing out by not shopping there.

However, the current Alibaba sales sites may not work for the average consumer. Only Alibaba.com and AliExpress are English language sites. Alibaba.com may be a good choice for companies seeking wholesale products, but it’s entirely impractical for nonbusiness folks.

AliExpress holds more promise, but it still feels like, well, like a foreign shopping experience. For example, search for tablets, and you’ll find unfamiliar brands like Cube, Chuwi and Onda. Then, there are the hundreds of negative reviews from people who have ended up not getting what they expected.

Personally, I’ll stick with Amazon and eBay for now.

The future of Alibaba in America

While the current Alibaba websites leave a lot to be desired for Western shoppers, you may be buying from Alibaba in the future and not even know it.

Forbes reports that 11 Main is owned by Alibaba. Not listed on the Alibaba Group page, 11Main.com says nothing that would make you think it is affiliated with a Chinese firm. In fact, it looks about as down-home American as baseball and apple pie. That all-American vibe is helped by the fact that 11 Main isn’t plagued by the awkward English phrasing that seems to pepper Alibaba.com and AliExpress.

And 11 Main may hold the key to Alibaba’s success in the United States. Rather than expanding its main brand and going head-to-head with retail juggernauts like Amazon, Alibaba may fly under the radar and open a number of niche sites instead.

Regardless of how it’s done, it seems Alibaba has its eye on American dollars and will be moving into the U.S. market in the years to come. Stay tuned.

Tell us what you think about Alibaba in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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