Printed in Asia – competitive cheap products or a genuine alternative? Last year Alibaba again grew substantially and it is now expanding further into Europe where it is now providing print products.
It’s not that long ago that Amazon sprung a “surprise” on the US and European print markets by launching its Prints program and Amazon Custom, two online print-related offerings. This move was to be expected, given that print personalization and print mass customization happen to be rather lucrative. Alibaba, with its wide range of brands and services, is often mentioned as Amazon’s biggest competitor worldwide. Although these two online colossuses operate to some extent on different geographical and business levels, however in terms of growth and availability the Asian corporation is catching up more and more with currently the world’s eCommerce leader.
As far as eCommerce is concerned, Alibaba has China and large parts of Asia firmly under control – to that extent it does not pose a “threat” to European online-based marketplaces and print providers. But is the distance between this Asian eCommerce giant and the European market really that great? Or will cheap print products that you can order online threaten to “inundate” the European online print market sooner or later, although these products are perceived to take half an eternity to ship?
What most people already know is that Alibaba doesn’t produce anything sold via its various websites and under its various brand names itself. The corporation “only” provides the B2B commerce and B2C commerce platforms called Alibaba (which also reaches out from Asia towards Europe) and Aliexpress respectively.
Print products from Alibaba and Aliexpress
Before I continue – the rest of this blog post is not about accurately counting and profiling all the print products available from Alibaba et al, but much more about taking a look at the options and limitations of the ordering process and therefore checking Alibaba’s “competitiveness” compared to local offerings in Europe.
Revealingly enough there are wide ranges of different print products available in Alibaba’s “Packaging & Printing” category and in Aliexpress’ “Office & School Supplies” category. For example, searching for “business card print” delivers more than 10,000 results just at aliexpress.com alone – when conducting the same search on amazon.de, little of relevance among the more than 1,000 results seems to be displayed at first glance. If you as a potential customer kick off on alibaba.com’s homepage and wish to navigate the site based on the categories, you are given a choice of further categories once you have entered “Packaging & Printing”, and I selected “Printing Services” – all the same I was presented with more than 160,000 offerings (at the time of my search). From this point on you can refine your search once again and with the aid of filters even narrow down your choice according to types of paper and/or print methods. If you narrow down the delivery area to the European countries listed using the appropriate filter, you are left with more than 80,000 offerings. So there appears to be sufficient choice.
But at Alibaba et al you will search in vain for direct personalization options using editors as offered by some online print providers and by the above-mentioned Amazon services. At least at the first stage of ordering – because a personalization request for designable print products can be selected on the following page of the ordering process. Added to that is the upload option for various file formats, in order, for example, to append design templates or image material.
A period ranging from 8 to 38 days can be given as a rough indication of delivery time – depending on product and provider. What is not quite clear is whether this is just the shipping time or the entire delivery lead time per provider. In comparison to – at least some – European online print providers, this represents a clear disadvantage in terms of speed of service. Shipping costs (to some extent there is free shipping to various European countries) also vary just as much as delivery times.
Leaving aside the to some extent badly translated and therefore mediocre user experience on both platforms, our research results tell us that both Alibaba and Aliexpress do not currently represent “genuine” competition to existing and – in terms of distance – ‘closer to home’ print offerings. As already mentioned above, the navigation process to the category or print product required in each case has already been rolled out, even if it needs improving, at least as far as clarity is concerned.
“European print providers don’t need to be alarmed at what Alibaba is currently offering in the way of print products you can order online. Although the offering is broad-based, it is not entirely appealing in terms of ordering process and speed requirements. However, online print providers should not underestimate what Alibaba is doing, because the eCommerce giant continues to expand.” – Bernd Zipper
Alibaba continues to grow – in Europe as well
In addition to existing offices in several European countries, a number of logistics centers in in various major European cities are being planned for the near future. Taking a holistic view, the Internet heavyweight, which was established in 1999, has grown exponentially in the last few years, which is due not least to the fact that after almost completely sowing up the Chinese market, it is also expanding into Europe. And Alibaba is not just limiting itself to its core business of eCommerce, but is attracting customers to its own platforms via eCommerce-related services like payments (Alipay) and a rapidly growing cloud computing division.
A glance at Alibaba’s annual financial statement sheds further light on growth last year – a sales increase of 58% to 34.23 bn. Euros compared to the previous year. Alibaba’s core activity increased sales by 60 % and cloud computing by 101 %. In comparison, Amazon posted sales of 153 bn. Euros in its last fiscal year, of which 14.3 bn. was accounted for by Germany. In terms of figures, Alibaba therefore does not yet represent competition for Amazon in Europe.
So why will Alibaba continue to grow in the future and why will it impact on European eCommerce and therefore directly on online print offerings? Because the Chinese online giant operates a business model that includes a full range of services related to the selling of products. In that respect this Chinese competitor resembles the Seattle-based US and European market leader. But as I said before, Alibaba “only” provides the platforms and, unlike Amazon, not its own range of (print) products.
My take: of course what matters – and that applies to the future as well – is not just the online availability of products, but also the service provided. Customer focus is a key determinant of business success, and in that respect Alibaba with its various brands is not (yet) a patch on many online print providers as well as on Amazon et al. It is simply of a different caliber. Nevertheless European print providers should not underestimate the platform, because positive feedback from several satisfied European customers in the profiles of the many providers that sell print products via these B2B and B2C platforms make pretty impressive reading. And that applies both to paper-based commodity print as well as to LFP print for outdoor advertising. If the corporation continues to grow as rapidly and continues to expand into Europe as expected, this won’t be the last blog post, in which I run the rule over the Asian eCommerce giant’s print offering. So stay tuned – it’s worth it!