Purpose - Before China's opening and reform policy transformed foreign trade, personal relationships characterised mainly domestic trade. Burgeoning international supply chains (ISC) require efficient document transfers to accompany large cargo shipments, but China's users of bills of lading (BOLs) increasingly experience delays or fraud. The purpose of this study is to investigate the potential for an internet-based, third-party (IBTP) internet service provider (ISP) offering electronic (e)BOLs and shipping documentation services. Design/methodology/approach - An exploratory attitude survey of BOL users compared trader, middlemen and shipping group perceptions' of current problems and potential for eBOLS. Findings - Accuracy, security and speed subsumed cost considerations for BOL users. Major concerns were delays, typing errors and excessive paperwork. EBOLs proffer speedier documentation, better management information and savings on postage. Concerns for secure data with legal integrity signify mistrust, favouring electronic data interchange (EDI). Research implications - This work studied BOL users in Shanghai. Future comparisons of how trust develops as other ISCs adopt eBOLS should identify groups with particular interests and potential industrial partners, evaluate user-costs, savings and ability to surmount existing problems. Practical implications - More traders trusted eBOLS but extensive training is required through state support or partnerships with internet-based, third-party internet service providers (IBTPIS) to establish infrastructure, knowledge, confidence and trust amongst potential local users. EBOL data is considered insecure. Its legal status must be clarified. Originality/value - This paper alerts participants in China's ISCs that trust suffuses trade. It quantifies user valuations of electronic systems that accelerate shipping documentation processes and advocates training of shipper and middlemen groups to dispel mistrust. © Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
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