Ahead of WeChat ban, American businesses scramble to find new ways to work with Chinese suppliers

WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging app, will be blocked in the United States on Sunday, cutting off a vital line of business communication between American sellers and their suppliers in China.

After months of speculation, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced on Friday that the app will be banned this weekend, a move that could essentially make WeChat worthless for existing users.

Rothy’s, a San Francisco-based direct-to-consumer shoe company, owns a 240,000-square-foot factory in Dongguan, China. Rothy’s co-founder and chief creative officer Roth Martin told NBC News that WeChat “was a critical tool for Rothy’s in the earliest days of our business” and remains a vital way for the team in the United States to communicate with more than 500 employees in China.

“Our West Coast team will often wake up to WeChat photos and videos of Rothy’s prototypes from the factory, communicating real-time changes to designs using the app,” Martin said. “We can then have those prototypes in our hands the next day. It’s a feedback loop that allows for endless iteration and innovation.”

“If you want someone to respond to you within 30 minutes at any time of day, WeChat is the way to go.”

Martin said his team is “incredibly nimble,” so they’re ready to shift to other communication tools to ensure their business isn’t disrupted.

For smaller businesses, the ban also creates a new challenge.

“My main form of communication with my manufacturer is through WeChat,” said Alfred Mai, CEO of ASM Games, which sells tabletop games on Amazon.

When Mai started working with his manufacturer in Wenzhou, China, three years ago, he said he would send emails that would take hours or sometimes a full day to get a response. He said it at first felt “weird and unprofessional” to be conducting deals over a messaging app, but he learned it was the preferred way of doing business in China. WeChat is now the primary way he communicates with his supplier.

A typical WeChat conversation for Mai might include sharing a new product idea, asking for photos of samples or technical details, such as how thick the cards are on a new game, Mai said.

“If you want someone to respond to you within 30 minutes at any time of day, WeChat is the way to go,” he said. “At the end of the day, you want to roll with how your manufacturer likes to communicate.”

Bradley Sutton, director of training at Helium 10, a company that provides software for Amazon sellers, said the ban will likely be more of an inconvenience for Chinese suppliers who will instead have to shift to other forms of communication, such as email, to keep in touch with with their American business partners.

“I deal with a lot of factories over there. As soon as the first announcement happened, they said if something happened overnight, here’s my email or WhatsApp,” he said. For American sellers, this “will be one less app.”

Mai said he’s ready to switch over to email with his supplier and doesn’t foresee the shift being a major negative to his business. However, he does wonder if the response time will lag in comparison to WeChat.

“As a small business owner, these bans and trade wars aren’t good for us,” Mai said. “But it’s another one of those things. We’ll just roll with the punches.”

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