The business world may be enthralled with Amazon's moves to become a major supermarket player, but Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba says it is already strides ahead and is opening up new ways for food producers to access its more than half-a-billion customers.
Alibaba has been an important avenue for Australian baby formula and vitamin producers to access the Chinese market, through its Alibaba.com wholesale website and its direct-to-consumer site Tmall, but Maggie Zhou, Alibaba's Australia and New Zealand managing director, said fresh produce now presented the greatest opportunity for growth.
Alibaba already sells some fresh products online and is pushing further into the category with its own supermarkets in China, opening 13 since 2015.
The company says it has tried to reinvent the supermarket experience at its Hema stores, with shoppers using a smartphone app to make purchases and learn about products.
Each supermarket also serves as a fulfilment centre for online orders that can be delivered within 30 minutes.
"So, if I'm an office lady, I can place an order after work and in 30 minutes the product is already in my home," Ms Zhou said.
The supermarkets already sell Australian fruit, vegetables and milk, and Ms Zhou said demand is set to grow.
China is Australia's largest food export market, selling more than $867 million of beef, $622 million of dairy products and $259 million of fruit and vegetables there last year, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Much has been made of Australia's potential to become the "food bowl of Asia".
Hong Kong-based business consultant, Geoff Raby, an economist and former Australian ambassador to China, has previously noted the "clean, green" reputation of Australian food has huge appeal for the growing Chinese middle class.
Yet along with high-profile success stories such as Swisse Vitamins and A2 Milk, which have made millions selling to China, other companies such as Bellamy's Organic and Blackmores have had a bumpier ride.
Ms Zhou said Alibaba could help Australian exporters navigate the sometimes unpredictable Chinese regulatory environment; dairy producers were hit last year by new rules for importing baby formula, for example.
Alibaba does not release sales or growth numbers by country, but its total revenue jumped 60 per cent to the equivalent of $7 billion last year.
Australia was its fourth highest selling market during its Double 11, or "Singles Day", shopping event last year.
This week the Victorian government announced Ms Zhou's appointment as its first ambassador under a new trade strategy designed to help businesses, particularly small to medium enterprises, access the global market.
Trade Minister Philip Dalidakis said Victoria's first trade strategy in over a decade would drive trade and investment.
- This article first appeared in The Age