From its roots as a small sock-making workshop three decades ago to becoming a leader of the industry producing 800 million yuan worth of products every year, it has often been plain sailing for Bonas Socks in Zhejiang’s Yiwu city. But like many manufacturers in this world-famous trading hub of small commodities, the company is “starting all over again” amid the downturn in China’s traditional exports, says general manager Hong Tingjie. Cross-border e-commerce is thought to be the way forward, and the company has started to sell products varying from socks to underwear via Amazon, eBay and home grown platforms, to the rest of the world. “The times are changing so fast. We have to act like we are starting a new undertaking, like many other traditional manufacturers,” said Hong, who is the brother-in-law of the family business’ founder and chairman Huang Zuqun. With offline sales shrinking in recent years, Bonas now sees a quarter of its sales revenue come from online sales to domestic consumers. As a way to expand the online business to overseas markets, the company has recently registered a new firm in the US and built a storehouse there. “We see that our core competitiveness is no longer ODM [Original Design Manufacturing] services, which we have done in the past decade, but development of new products, research of target markets, and other related services based on our experience,” said Hong. Bonas’ decision to transform was made amid growing support from the central government for cross-border e-commerce. Since 2013, the State Council has issued a series of policies to provide convenience for online vendors targeting overseas customers. The country has seen an annual growth of 30 to 40 per cent in the trade value of cross-border e-commerce over the past four years. In contrast, its overall trade value remained sluggish, with single-digit growth, over that period. Liu Liang, a sales manager from SF Express’ international e-commerce department, said that 350,000 packages were delivered from Yiwu to foreign markets every day, making it China’s fourth most active city in cross-border e-commerce after Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. The overall trade value remained exceptional in Yiwu, which recorded 148.6 billion yuan of total foreign trade last year, up by about a third from the previous year, according to Yiwu customs. Even so, it was a slowdown compared to the 99 per cent year-on-year growth recorded in 2013. “With a very competitive supply of high-cost performance products, Yiwu is growing fast in e-commerce, including the cross-border type,” Liu said. But it’s not been easy for all. Price competition has been so fierce that some sellers have had to make profits by lowering the costs of delivery services rather than marking up their products. “In my opinion this is a very unhealthy way,” he added. Wang Deli, secretary general of the cross-border e-commerce research centre under the China Electronic Commerce Association, warned of other problems in revitalising trade by reaching out to foreign markets via online platforms. “The idea looks pretty but the reality is cruel,” he said, “… competing with each other using homogenised products, more and more companies found their transformation actually put them in a dilemma.” Behind the awkward situation is the lack of talent, innovation, design, quality, service, and efficiency, he said. Jia Caimin, founder and chairman of Yiwu Jimao, a local e-commerce company targeting overseas markets, said that since cross-border e-commerce had started to grow a decade ago, only a few had survived the competition. “I started dabbling in this area in 2007 and I am grateful that I survived because, as far as I know, less than 5 per cent of companies like mine are still alive today,” he said. The major reason for this was, as Liu mentioned, a price war. Many new comers had joined the sector over the years and found nothing to compete on other than price. Despite a yearly turnover of 150 million yuan for his company, with over 20,000 types of products sold to Europe, America, Australia and Middle East, Jia was still uncertain about the future. “I’m not sure how much longer we can survive, because I feel so strongly that the competition is just too fierce,” he said.