From e-commerce to m-commerce: that is the aim of Chinese Internet giant Alibaba, and it is giving away free smartphones as part of its efforts to encourage merchants to shift from PC-based online shopping to shopping via mobile phones — by helping them work better on this new platform.

Alibaba announced that it has set up a CNY500 million ($82 million) investment program to make it easier for online retailers to make the switch, and that includes giving away smartphones to willing online retailers — though there is a catch: they need to purchase a mobile-service package from Alibaba.

The packages range from CNY1,699 ($279) to CNY2,699 ($443) and provide merchants who set up shop on Alibaba’s Taobao Marketplace with a starter guide on how to set up online stores for mobile devices, data analysis tools and e-book coupons, as well as guidance on legal matters for more costly packages.

Once a merchant purchases any of the packages, Alibaba will throw in a free smartphone running its mobile operating system, and which includes software optimized for the needs of Taobao sellers. Such a move will likely help online retailers optimize their digital storefronts for mobile, and also let them understand the way mobile shopping works compared with PC-based shopping.

During Alibaba’s recent 11.11 Shopping Festival — China’s answer to America’s Cyber Monday shopping bonanza — 21 percent of orders were being placed via mobile devices, up from a mere 5 percent a year earlier, an indication of how mobile is gaining importance among Chinese shoppers.

Eddie Wu, Alibaba’s senior vice president, notes that Taobao customers who shop with mobile devices now number more than 320 million.

In July this year, Alibaba CEO Jonathan Lu pledged to continue the e-commerce giant’s recent string of big investments as it maintains focus on improving its services for mobile. Lu said that Alibaba is focusing mobile as it responds to the growth of tablets and phones in China, which is the world’s largest smartphone market.

Headline image via Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images