By Qi Qi, Gan Lin, Xuan Shi, Xin Gao, and Ruoyu Zhou
“Because of the pandemic,” Mr. Jin Yafei says with a slight frown on his face, “most offline exhibitions had been suspended or canceled.”
Mr. Jin is the General Manager of the Yiwu China Commodities City Exhibition Co., Ltd, and the Chairperson of Yiwu Federation of Convention and Exhibition Industries, who has set his feet in the exhibition industry in Yiwu for over ten years.
In early 2020, COVID-19 suddenly broke out worldwide. It significantly hit Jin’s hometown, Yiwu, known for the world’s largest wholesale market. In fact, people rarely know that Yiwu is also a city with an exhibition-oriented economy.
The exhibition plays a crucial role in Yiwu. Mr. Jin states that there were almost 200 exhibitions every year before COVID. According to data released in 2018, Yiwu Convention and Exhibition ranked 36th globally and 6th in China based on its comprehensive performance. Yiwu, a small county-level city in Zhejiang Province, is only several places after first-tier cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou in China. Fairs gathered extensive exhibitors from all over the world. But during the pandemic, numerous foreign merchants intended to engage with their offline exhibitors had been trapped outside of China.
Exposition: An Asymptote that Draws Near to the Business
A scene of an ongoing exhibition in Yiwu International Expo Center
“Expositions are activities held to help merchants to target their buyers, and Yiwu as a significant business city holds a large number of expositions every year, such as China Yiwu Imported Commodities Fair,” Mr. Jin enunciates. What’s more, The Yiwu China Commodities City Exhibition Co., Ltd provides exhibition service to more than 800,000 international and local exhibitors from 34 provinces in China and 78 countries. The amount is breathtaking.
In Yiwu, all expositions construct a bridge that connects demand and supply globally.
Before the butterfly named “pandemic” flapped its wings and caused a devastating hurricane dragging almost everything down to dust, a diverse set of people assembled in the Yiwu exhibitions and created a paradise for international trade.
Eric, a university student from the Republic of Zimbabwe, who intends to register a start-up, has participated in numerous expositions in Yiwu to become familiar with state-of-the-art products.
He is not the only person who thinks expositions are of significance. Dr. Sun Zhina, from China-Africa Business School, Zhejiang Normal University, views the Yiwu exposition as an opportunity to research international trade. She gathers her students to conduct street interviews, distribute questionnaires, and organize voluntary service during the expositions.
Other participants, like Ms. Zhou, a local, might attend the expo merely to enjoy the numerous themes in the expositions to, as quoted by her “spice life up.”
Based on the aforementioned reasons, exhibitions are attractive events not only for insiders but also for the citizens. All these international and local participants are potential customers of exhibitors, prompting many orders.
Repeating Decimal: Reality divide by pandemic
An empty exhibition hall in Yiwu
At the beginning of 2020, the pandemic resembled a formidable cage that trapped people with fear.
Lockdowns prevented most merchants from conducting business offline, restricting them to look outside solely through their computer screens at home. The hectic international trade of the old days was paused, while the neighborhood streets turned into a no man’s land. The locations for offline convention and exposition also turned silent and vacant, in addition to business IM tools like Wechat and Whatsapp: empty dialog box and no sounds of message notification.
Dr. Sun Zhina says thoughtfully, “at the beginning of this depressing story, COVID-19 severely struck the international business in Yiwu, and it was arduous for merchants to expand the range of customers.”
People had to find a new way to enlarge their customer pool, especially when the offline expositions, a valuable way for attracting new customers, suffered a hard blow. The online exhibition might be a unique choice for merchants, but some people think it has “natural-born” disadvantages.
Online Exposition: A Pseudo-Proposition?
Diamonds on display during an Expo in Yiwu
In the words of Mr. Jin, “the online exposition is a pseudo-proposition.”
To some extent, there might be a handful of reasons to back up Mr. Jin’s idea.
First, the quality of goods cannot be guaranteed in online expositions.
Hypothetically speaking, if a person is interested in buying a diamond online, the merchants may exaggerate the size of the diamond by photographing it from a particular angle to boost its price and trick customers. Therefore, customers may buy diamonds that are actually smaller than the diamonds seen in the live broadcast.
The products displayed in the exhibition are not tangible for online customers. So the information provided by the online exposition is hardly serviceable for buyers. Customers cannot be convinced through live streaming due to a lack of experience during the process and may consequently buy diamonds with poor gloss.
Although the online exposition has disadvantages, it still possesses certain charms, especially when it’s considered at a relatively challenging period of time. As a stopgap, the statistics reveal that online exposition is favored by exhibitors and participants, and has also gained support from the government.
Data shows: as of the end of December 2020, a total of 10110 exhibiting companies (including 1891 Yiwu market operators) have proactively organized innovative online exhibition practices, which attracted 107.38 million visits, 52,132 online appointments and business negotiations, and a trade turnover of 320 million yuan.
Turning point: live streaming and Zoom?
By embracing the newly developed model of online point-to-point live streaming, Yiwu’s economy has been reignited.
In one perspective, combining offline exposition and live streaming is the compensation of offline experience. As the pandemic thwarts the expansion of offline expo, exhibitors have lost numerous customers. At the moment, the introduction of live streaming opens a new potential customer market, and retains and expands the existing one. While exhibitors negotiate with offline participants, they can also open a platform—live streaming—for global audiences.
In the 2020 China Yiwu International Commodities (Standards) Fair, the organizer held substantial live streaming. In addition, twelve foreign business internet celebrities had been invited for overseas online promotion.
At three p.m., the webcast host had appeared in the live streaming booth and began live streaming. The desk in front of her was full of exclusive products and a giant jug. The product she recommended was the vintage-inspired bracelet. She would wear the bracelet on her left wrist to present to the viewers. Through her live streaming, abundant customers who couldn’t advent in the offline exhibition were still pumped with strong desire of “impulsive purchase”.
As another online platform, Zoom provides opportunities for interested participants; foreign merchants can directly appoint online meetings to get in touch for acquiring information from exhibitors and to strengthen the matched connection and cooperation.
Although God closes a door of Yiwu international trading, he simultaneously opens a window for innovative approaches. Online expositions bring the local economy back on the right track.
Under the effective control of the pandemic situation in China, Yiwu has now held both offline and online exhibitions to stimulate China’s internal demand.
“Under the influence of the pandemic,” says Mr. Jin, “there was a decline in the first quarter of 2020, but that momentum twisted soon in the second quarter, aggregate sales in Yiwu have increased, thanks to online methods.”
The combination of dual lines, online and offline, made the model of the China Yiwu International Commodities (Standards) Fair pioneering and practical worldwide, which also was developed as an industrial standard for exposition in Yiwu.
“The Online+offline exhibition is the vane of the domestic market demand, the barometer of the economy, and the glue between the supply chain and trades.” ——this is now a catchphrase among the Yiwu’s exposition-savvy professionals.