Alibaba steps up push into on-demand local services as overseas expansion intensifies
Investments in Ele.me will expand the Shanghai-based subsidiary’s business beyond transporting meals to consumers into other on-demand services
More than 19 years since former English teacher Jack Ma Yun led a group of 18 people to build an online retail business in China that would become an e-commerce powerhouse, Alibaba Group Holding has its sights trained on the next big thing – the burgeoning on-demand local services market.
Analysts forecast strong long-term growth for Alibaba, thanks to the inclusion of food-delivery unit Ele.me to the company’s core commerce business. This main business, which includes online retail platforms Taobao Marketplace and Tmall, currently make up about 85 per cent of the group’s revenue.
New York-listed Alibaba, which will report its latest quarterly financial results before the US market opens on Thursday, is expected to post a 61 per cent increase in revenue to 80.8 billion yuan (US$11.8 billion) for the three months ended June 30, according to Bloomberg consensus analyst estimates.
“We believe Alibaba is building a stronger ecosystem, with Ele.me as a strategic asset to expand its offline retail business and penetrate the online fast moving consumer goods segment,” wrote Mae Huang, an analyst at SWS Research, in a report published ahead of Alibaba’s results announcement.
Alibaba completed its acquisition of Ele.me in April this year with a US$9.5 billion deal that saw it buy out other Ele.me stakeholders, including Chinese online search giant Baidu.
Alibaba, the parent company of the South China Morning Post, plans to ramp up investments in Ele.me’s operations amid increased competition from rival Meituan-Dianping, which is backed by Tencent Holdings.
Last month, Ele.me announced a 3 billion yuan investment to provide subsidies and other incentives to users. The Shanghai-based firm aims to win at least a 50 per cent share of China’s on-demand food delivery market in the near term. It also aims to expand its business beyond transporting meals to consumers to other on-demand services, potentially delivering items such as flowers and over-the-counter medication.
Earlier this month, Ele.me announced a partnership with Starbucks Corp to begin delivery services from September to stores in key trade zones in Beijing and Shanghai, with plans for more than 2,000 stores across 30 cities by the end of this year.
“Alibaba is smart as it looks five, 10 or even 20 years ahead,” said Shaun Rein, the managing director at China Market Research Group and author of the book The War for China’s Wallet: Profiting from the New World Order. “If it plans to become a global player, Alibaba needs to expand its business to other regions fast, just like what it is doing in Southeast Asia these days.”
Along with expansion overseas, Alibaba’s push into on-demand local services would help add greater momentum to the “New Retail” strategy pioneered by Ma, who serves as executive chairman at China’s largest e-commerce services provider. The term refers to the integration of online and offline experiences for consumers in areas from shopping, food delivery to buying groceries.
Alibaba has already kick-started its New Retail strategy through its chain of Hema supermarkets, which allow users to shop offline or online as they please, have groceries delivered to their doorsteps and even have chefs whip up fresh seafood meals on the spot.
“We expect Alibaba to continue investing in New Retail, overseas expansion and in features designed to enhance the user experience,” said Ronnie Ho and Cheng Xing, analysts at CCB International, in a report. “Investments to improve the user experience have extended Alibaba’s market leadership by accelerating user growth in the [previous] financial year.”
That expansion, however, has come at a cost of lower margins for its core commerce operations, which are expected to decline over the following years.
Hangzhou-based Alibaba has set a target of achieving US$1 trillion in gross merchandise volume (GMV) by its 2020 financial year. GMV is a metric used by e-commerce businesses to measure total sales transacted through their platforms.
For the three months ended June, Alibaba is predicted to post adjusted net income of 7.99 billion yuan, compared with 14.68 billion yuan a year earlier, because of higher spending, according to the consensus analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.
The company’s short-term expenses, including 1.6 billion yuan for subsidiary Youku Tudou’s live-streaming rights and higher bandwidth fees for the Fifa World Cup this year, will impact its margins in the short-term, according to a research note by ICBC analysts Martin Bao and Vicky Wu.
The yuan’s slide against the US dollar is also expected to result in foreign currency losses that will impact Alibaba’s net income in the short term, the ICBC analysts said.
Over the past few years, Alibaba has splashed out billions as it invested in various online and bricks-and-mortar retail operations in China, including Suning Commerce Group, Intime Retail Group, Sanjiang Shopping Club, Lianhua Supermarket, Sun Art Retail Group and its own Hema supermarket chain.
In Southeast Asia, Alibaba has bet on Singapore-based e-commerce subsidiary Lazada to extend the group’s operations in a region comprising 11 countries with a total population of 653.4 million, about 49 per cent of which live in urban areas, according to the latest United Nations estimates.
The push for growth overseas and diversification in business activities is poised to intensify for Alibaba amid increased competition and slower pace of expansion in the domestic online retail market. China’s online shopping market has seen its annual growth rate decline to 26.2 per cent in 2016 from 57.7 per cent in 2013, according to the CCB analysts’ report. China now accounts for about 70.5 per cent of its total revenue, led by customer management and commission revenues.
To combat the decline, Alibaba is seeking to transplant overseas the business model that it has refined in China’s massive internet market, which had an online population of 802 million at the end of June – about as many internet users as there are people in the United States, Indonesia and Brazil combined.
Size matters on the internet because of the so-called network effect, in which the addition of users increases the value of the product or service being consumed. The growth of the world’s second biggest economy’s online market has allowed internet companies Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent to achieve unprecedented scale.
Those three firms, collectively known under the acronym BAT, have expanded beyond their initial businesses to dominate nearly every aspect of China’s internet industry, with businesses ranging from web search and social media to retail and entertainment. The trio now commands a combined market valuation exceeding US$1 trillion.
The triumvirate has also looked beyond China for investment opportunities with a total of 150 companies overseas receiving money from BAT, according to the China internet Report co-authored by the Post, its tech news site Abacus and San Francisco-based venture capital firm 500 Startups.