The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruption to global sourcing patterns. According to a new survey commissioned by Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) Research, the vast majority of international buyers (93%) have used online sourcing platforms since the pandemic began, with more than 85% attending virtual fairs to meet their sourcing needs. However, most buyers surveyed said they would prefer to source via physical fairs (63%) or hybrid fairs (59%) once travel restrictions are lifted.
Commenting on the findings of the survey, HKTDC Director of Research Irina Fan said: “The survey reflects that more buyers have been choosing to purchase online due to the pandemic. However, this makes it difficult to perform tasks such as product examination and evaluation as well as supplier authentication. We believe that physical fairs and hybrid fairs are the future, with the two complementing each other.”
The HKTDC commissioned independent research institution Ipsos to conduct the study, titled “B2B Online Sourcing: A Buyer Behaviour Study Towards Recovery”, between May and October 2021, interviewing about 600 international buyers from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, Australia, Europe, Mainland China and the United States to gauge their views on international sourcing patterns following the onset of the pandemic.
According to the survey, 93% of respondents said they had used online sourcing platforms during the past 12 months where they conducted more than 60% of their sourcing on average; 43% said they had engaged more suppliers than they did prior to the pandemic using online sourcing platforms; 46% said they had sourced a wider variety of products; 42% said they had sourced more frequently; and 44% said the average value per order had increased.
Top three reasons to use online sourcing platforms
Ms Fan said that there are three top reasons for buyers to use online sourcing platforms, namely, to search for new suppliers and make enquiries (70%), to compare products and prices (66%), and to identify the latest product trends (57%). “In the wake of the pandemic, many industries are committed to organising virtual fairs to strengthen the connection between international buyers and suppliers. These events have been well received by the industry, with the survey showing that more than 85% of buyers surveyed had participated in virtual fairs in 2021.”
In addition, buyers rated the overall effectiveness of online sourcing through web platforms, websites, mobile apps and virtual meetings at an average of 7.4 out of 10, seeing them as fairly effective overall. When asked about the main pain points associated with using online sourcing platforms, 61% of respondents said it was the inability to examine products physically, while other major barriers were the risk of fraud (56%), insufficient product details and images (54%), unresponsive suppliers (49%) and uncertified products (49%).
Can virtual fairs supersede physical fairs?
Regarding future sourcing preferences, 63% of buyers responding in the survey said they would prefer to source via physical fairs while 59% of buyers would prefer hybrid fairs once travel restrictions are lifted. Among the buyers surveyed, those from Mainland China and ASEAN countries expressed most enthusiasm for hybrid fairs, followed by buyers from Europe, the United States and Australia.
Ms Fan pointed out that while international buyers have accepted virtual fairs out of necessity, and reduced travel costs and other expenses associated with attending physical fairs, the general consensus remains that virtual fairs will not supersede physical fairs. Physical and virtual fairs both have their own merits, and hybrid fairs that combine the two formats will continue to be another choice for international buyers.
The survey also showed that buyers who prefer hybrid fairs were more likely to register a higher average spend per order (in the range of US$50,000-$100,000+) compared with counterparts who prefer physical or virtual fairs. This suggests that hybrid fairs could be well positioned to facilitate more lucrative business opportunities.
Ms Fan added that the key digital features buyers would like to see at hybrid fairs include the ability to easily search and acquire exhibitor information, scheduling meetings with exhibitors before, during and after the physical tradeshow, and having access to useful communication tools such as instant messaging, file sharing and business card sharing. Other services such as seminar livestreaming and recordings, virtual meetings, and artificial intelligence-enabled exhibitor as well as product recommendations were also sought-after features of great benefit to buyers and exhibitors alike.
Main survey findings
– Buyers who used online sourcing platforms in the past 12 months
– Buyers who joined virtual fairs in the past 12 months
– Buyers’ sourcing preferences in post-COVID-19 era
Physical fairs 63%
Hybrid fairs 59%
Virtual fairs 37%
Online sourcing platforms 21%
– Change in sourcing behaviours due to COVID-19*
Variety of products sourced | Number of suppliers engaged | Sourcing frequency | Average value per order
Increased 46% | 43% | 42% | 44%
Remained unchanged 38% | 31% | 30% | 33%
Decreased 15% | 26% | 27% | 24%
– Top 3 reasons to use online sourcing platforms
Search for new suppliers and make enquiries 70%
Compare products and prices 66%
Identify the latest product trends 57%
– Pain points associated with using online sourcing platforms
Unable to examine the products physically 61%
Risk of fraud 56%
Insufficient product details and photos 54%
Unresponsive suppliers 49%
Uncertified products 49%
* Percentages may not add up to 100% due to rounding.