Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Alibaba explores how AI can level playing field for SMEs

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/Jonathan Kitchen
Source: Getty/Jonathan Kitchen

Related tags Alibaba

With the recent launch of an AI-powered Smart Assistant, leading business-to-business e-commerce platform wants to help level the playing field and increase the odds of success for small and medium enterprises and solopreneurs by simplifying their sourcing and supply chain operations.

According to Alibaba, a startup’s chances of success currently are pretty grim with 20% failing in the first two years and 45% folding before five years due in large part to a lack of resources and knowledge to successfully navigate market volatility, supply chain disruptions, shifting consumer demands and inventory management. wants to help fill gaps in entrepreneurs’ knowledge and lighten their burdens by using a well-trained AI to leverage lessons learned and insights gathered from its 25 years of experience in global trade, according to head of marketing for North America Rah Mahtani. He explains in this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast​, how the platform and its Smart Assistant are using AI to empower new and seasoned entrepreneurs to overcome obstacles and more effectively navigate global commerce. He also shares how AI is reshaping retail more generally by streamlining B2B e-commerce and retail workflow processes and how businesses can make the most of these advances.

[Editor’s Note: Never miss an episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast – subscribe​ today.]

Alibaba goes beyond ‘simply desk research’ to craft AI-based Smart Assistant

In recent years artificial intelligence and machine learning have repeatedly been proffered as almost a panacea for the world’s woes, but time and time again they have fallen short in large part because they are only as good as the data on which they are trained.

Recognizing the skepticism some may have about AI solutions, Mahtani says Alibaba was careful to avoid the shortcomings that typically plague AI by first understanding the SME experience, including that entrepreneurs have limited resources and often wear multiple hats, and then finding real solutions by going beyond “simply desk research” to interact with buyers and salespeople in the retail space and interact with developers to understand what the tools are capable of and how they can actually enhance experiences.

“We know that business owners are running the show by themselves or they have one person helping to operate or steer that ship, and [they] often don’t have time to do a whole lot of research, which big companies have access to. … [They] the needs at [their] fingertips as a small business owner, and we want to use [our] 25 years of knowledge and data we have … to bring that to people instantly,” he said.

“The way we want to approach this, we want to look at AI as sort of a co-pilot or friend” to SMES, which is helpful but not intrusive, he added.

Alibaba’s Smart Assistant brings together multiple solutions

Alibaba’s solution, which it debuted at CES this year, is a small AI icon that appears in the top right corner of the platform, and which users can interact with like an assistant as a single touchpoint throughout the site to discover new opportunities and trends, track orders and more.

Mahtani explains that the first two features of the Smart Assistant are an upgraded image search and a smart request for quotation or RFQ, which initially debuted in September, but which already have significantly improved entrepreneurs’ experience and results.

“Many of our buyers that are leveraging these tools are seeing 29% more quotes from the suppliers they’re reaching out to through our Smart RFQ too, and then even suppliers are seeing a 21% increase in responses because the AI tools are helping their initial submission become so much more detailed,” he explained.

AI, Alibaba offer supply chain resiliency, solutions to manage inflation

Mahtani sees significant potential for AI and Alibaba to help businesses manage the impact of inflation and add resiliency to their supply chains.

“The No. 1 concern from the businesses that we talk to, small businesses in particular, are related to costs. Inflation has driven the price of everything up. … AI can be really beneficial in we want to be able to help business owners understand how global trade can actually help lower those costs ,” Mahtani said.

“What I mean by that is … we have data that indicates that tons of business owners are not only sticking to one supplier. They are gong to multiple suppliers,” including domestically and abroad so they have the “perfect mix” in their supply chain, he said.

He added AI can help detect price changes in real time and offer solutions for nearshoring and offshoring.

Mahtani says that Alibaba also is using AI to further breakdown obstacles – like language barriers or keeping track of simultaneous conversations with suppliers – that might hold back solopreneurs or startups with limited staff from embracing global trade as a way to reinforce their supply chains and manage costs.

For example, Alibaba uses AI to offer real time translations between potential partners in different countries to speed negotiations and results.

As AI continues to evolve, Mahtani says Alibaba plans to expand the capabilities of its Smart Assistant to include more logistics and play in the broader omni-channel setting.

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