Tudor Van Hampton
Contractors glimpse free-trade Website.

The construction industry loves free trade. Freedom to buy from a wide range of suppliers around the world keeps prices low and options flexible.

That freedom also can open up buyers to scams and stomach aches.

One such place where the industry comes together to make wholesale deals is www.alibaba.com, a China-based Website that has increasingly gained popularity as people look to source global supplies of just about everything, from steel conduit to earthmoving machines.

Representatives from Alibaba Group, partly owned by Yahoo and whose stock went public on the Hong Kong exchange last November, were on hand at this year's World of Concrete in Las Vegas to offer demonstrations.

The site works like this: Registration is free to buyers. A search engine draws on a vast database of millions of products listed from 200 countries and 30 industries.

As a casual browser, it's easy to get lost, as there are 5,000 different product categories.

But the site simplifies things by collecting most popular searches and displaying them at the top of the screen. Some of those items up for grabs on the site during the Las Vegas show, held Jan. 22-25: "electric car, "iron ore," "milk powder," "Portland cement," "prom dress," "leather sofa."

A search for "drills" came up with nearly 16,000 products. Want to visit a manufacturer in person? The site also storehouses 18,000 trade shows and events where companies may be exhibiting.

When a search finds an item, the site displays which manufacturers are offering the product and helps the parties hook up. For harder-to-find items, users can put out a bulletin so sellers can contact them with an offer.

Sellers and advertisers are the primary revenue streams for the site. Most of them are based in China, and pay up to $12,000 per year to get their names and products listed.

Free trade is not always so easy, however. Buyers familiar with the site said they have been disappointed with the quality of some items when they arrived.

Sivert Mysse, who owns Titan Oil & Gas Services Inc., said he recently used Alibaba.com to buy a container load of steel tubing for his contracting business in Havre, Mont. ENR spotted him carrying one of the Website's bright-orange bags as he walked the concrete show on Jan. 23.

The conduit, when it arrived, was not the best quality, he added.

"You have to tell them exactly what you want," Mysse explained. "Don't give them a range of specifications, or it goes straight to the bottom."

Even so, Mysse said he would use the site again. Many others are, too: The site, which was founded in 1999, now is over 24-million members strong.