Last week, I met with Alibaba.com CEO David Wei, and after an unfortunately-timed fire alarm, we had a really interesting discussion. I always thought of Alibaba as a place for companies to find Chinese factories and Chinese-made components. A U.S. company that makes, say, coffee makers, could buy steel plates from a supplier found on Alibaba.com.
But actually, you can find the coffee makers themselves on Alibaba. The site offers all kinds of products, including electronics, wedding dresses, sailboats, and paper towels. Wei said some people have been using Alibaba as a sort of online Costco, a place to buy a year's worth of toilet paper. It struck me: should businesses be using Alibaba to buy cheap office supplies?
There are a few catches; it's not quite as easy as ordering from Amazon. Prices aren't always listed, and when they are listed, it's often in Renminbi. And the price is usually presented as a range. You have to contact the seller to negotiate the final cost, since it generally depends on how much you buy. I saw a listing for toilet paper in which the minimum order was one container-load. I would have a tough time storing that in my New York City apartment. But I contacted one seller who offered a minimum order of five cubic meters. I'll let you know when I hear back.
What do you think? Would you ever use Alibaba to buy cheap office supplies? If you do, please let me know, I'd love to hear about it.