China moves vast trade fair online, but few buyers follow

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The website of the Canton Fair which delivers live streaming from vendors is seen on a computer screen in Beijing on Friday, June 19, 2020. The twice-a-year fair usually draws more than 180,000 foreign buyers and 60,000 Chinese vendors to the southern city of Guangzhou. But with most foreign visitors barred from China, the event has transformed itself into an e-commerce platform with mini-shopping channels for nearly 8,000 vendors. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

BEIJING – Standing in front of shelves laden with colorful backpacks, a saleswoman promoted bags on the Canton Trade Fair’s website without knowing whether anyone was watching as the world’s biggest sales event opened in cyberspace to avoid the coronavirus pandemic.

The twice-a-year fair usually draws more than 180,000 foreign buyers and 25,000 Chinese vendors to the southern city of Guangzhou. With most foreign visitors barred from China, the event has transformed itself into an e-commerce platform with mini-shopping channels.

The saleswoman for Honeyong Enterprise Co.,Ltd. showed off backpacks for children. Shark fins jutted out of a model for boys. A hot pink model for girls had lace flaring out from the bottom like a ballerina’s tutu.

“It will look like dancing girls when your little girl wears it,” said the saleswoman, who gave her name as Sophia. “If you want more choices, please contact me right now,” Sophia said, pointing to an instant message link on the screen, “or send me an email.”

The fair, founded in 1957, was for decades Chinese exporters’ main link to foreign buyers. It faces growing competition from companies such as Hong Kong’s Global Sources and China’s Alibaba Group that connect buyers and exporters online. But the fair still is popular with retailers and other customers who want to meet new suppliers and try out products.

Orders at last year’s spring session, which attracted 195,000 buyers, totaled 199.5 billion yuan ($29.6 billion), organizers say. Last November’s autumn session produced an additional 207 billion yuan ($29.4 billion) in deals.

This year, it isn't clear yet how many buyers have followed vendors to the website.

“Not many foreign customers visit us online,” said Honeyong's sales manager, Clare Wan. “Maybe if they want to check out new products, they still want to see them in person.”