Alibaba takes on EBay, Etsy with U.S-based shopping site


The headquarters of Alibaba in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. (Chance Chan/Reuters)

There’s a new online shopping site in town that hopes to take on likes of Etsy, eBay and Amazon on their own turf.

The name is “11 Main.”

It’s being launched in beta by the Chinese Internet giant Alibaba, according to a press release from 11 Main.

Alibaba is bigger than eBay and Amazon combined and dominates e-commerce in China. Its first foray into U.S.-based online sales comes at it prepares for its U.S. initial public offering, which may come as soon as August and is expected to be one of the largest IPOs in history.

The “invitation-only” site will host more than 1,000 upscale specialty shops and boutiques that sell clothing, accessories, interior goods, arts and crafts — and it plans to keep adding more. The site aims to create an online experience that resembles your local “Main Street” shopping experience.

The new site appears tailored to American tastes with a clean look and modern layout. 11 Main says sellers and their products will be subject to review by the site — perhaps an effort to combat the bad reputation of Taobao, Alibaba’s version of Amazon that is rife with counterfeit goods. There are guidelines for product quality, customer service, photography and even background choice. (Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru told the AP she believes Alibaba won’t find it easy to break into the already-crowded online shopping industry. “U.S. e-commerce is crowded and relies on high marketing expenses to rise above the clutter,” she said. “The hope is high. We’ll see if they live up to expectations.”

But 11 Main thinks they can offer merchants something existing sites don’t. “There are many small shop owners that are looking for broader platforms, but when they look at the broader platforms, those are not necessarily structured to support their brands or their identities,” Mike Effle, president and general manager of 11 Main, told the Wall Street Journal.

E-commerce is indeed crowded, but boutique e-commerce — Etsy, for example — is a niche that has fewer major players, most of which aren’t familiar to the masses. Sellers may opt for sites such as eBay or Amazon, which more people know, but in doing so they compromise the ability to personalize their retail space.

Susan Berry, who sells her Oshun Spirit brand of natural skin care and beauty products, has already joined 11 Main. “I’m always looking for alternatives to eBay,” she told the Journal. Berry has sold on eBay since 2001, but worries about relying too heavily on one site.

11 Main promises brands creative control over their space on the site — and the ability to personalize it with photo and video, unlike the generic listings of major e-commerce sites such as Amazon, eBay and even Etsy, a site for sellers of vintage and handmade goods.

And with Alibaba behind it, the site has access to tons of money for marketing.

An 11 Main spokesman told the Journal the company has a “robust marketing plan” to support the growth of the shops featured on the new site, but declined to share specific plans or how much it plans to spend on advertising.

That was part of 11 Main’s appeal for Tiger Bachler, one of the site’s beta vendors who owns Alys Grace, a small chain of upscale clothing stores in California’s Bay Area. “We’ve been struggling with the ability to reach a large audience being a small business,” she told the AP. “We anticipate [11 Main] will be able to give us a wider audience with their marketplace expertise and marketing power.”

Cost is part of the site’s appeal. Brands will pay a 3.5 percent commission, the same that Etsy charges. But that is half what most other major U.S. shopping sites charge, according to the Journal. Without ads or retailer fees, commissions are how the site will make money, the AP said.

After eyeing the United States for its IPO, Alibaba made several deals with U.S. companies. In March, the company announced it bought a minority stake in TangoMe, a mobile messaging start-up, for $215 million. Last year, the company invested $206 million in ShopRunner, an Amazon rival.

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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