Going virtual proves challenging for China’s giant Canton Fair

Canton Fair China
Staff members of Guangzhou Textiles Holdings Limited display clothing items during a live-streaming session for the China Import and Export Fair, also known as Canton Fair, which is held online this year following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China June 15, 2020. Picture taken June 15, 2020. China Daily via REUTERS

SHENZHEN, China (Reuters) – China’s oldest and biggest trade expo opened online for the first time this week to make up for lost face-to-face trading in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, though some buyers and sellers complained of teething problems.

With travel restrictions making the twice-yearly Canton Fair in Guangzhou impossible, organisers moved online, touting more than 25,000 exhibitors showing products across ten 24-hour live broadcast rooms.

The last fair, in October in the southern city of Guangzhou, saw export turnover of 207.1 billion yuan ($29.2 billion), according to organisers, with 186,015 buyers from 214 countries and regions. The spring session, originally scheduled for April but was postponed, opened on Monday.

Chinese tech giant Tencent is providing cloud support for the 10-day event, with buyers and sellers able to message each other in real-time. The company declined to comment.

Several sellers reported glitches and low first-day customer turnout.

“We can only see buyers come in, but we can’t actively communicate with them,” Elaine Gu, a marketer for hand sanitiser maker AoGrand, told Reuters by phone on Monday.

Despite expecting a spate of customers given the pandemic, and having spent nearly a month preparing, she said just four people entered the company’s chatroom on the first day.

The organisers declined to comment.

Some buyers expressed frustration as well.

“We deal with around 50 factories in China, and to be honest, no one has really known what is going on,” said Chris Sillitoe, owner of a UK-based tools and hardware sourcing company and a regular Canton Fair attendee.

“It’s been tough finding out beforehand how it’s going to work,” he said by WeChat on Monday, adding that livestreams had not worked for many of the manufacturers he wanted to see.

Others expected business to pick up.

“This is the first day, so maybe customers don’t know us,” Lucky Ren, a salesman for another sanitiser company, said via WeChat.

He said he would be livestreaming until 11 p.m. (1500 GMT) every night to cross all time zones.

($1 = 7.0942 Chinese yuan)

(By David Kirton; Editing by Tony Munroe and Jacqueline Wong)

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