When most people hear the name Alibaba, they think of a character from “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” one of the most familiar of the The Arabian Nights stories. But Alibaba also happens to be the name of the largest global tech company that you’ve probably never heard of. While Alibaba controls 80 percent of China’s online shopping market, it has little name recognition in the United States. But that may all be about to change.
Alibaba is in the process of amending its prospectus for an initial public offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), which will probably occur sometime in September. Alibaba’s market cap will rank up there with household names like Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, Samsung, and Facebook. Some think the offering may approach $20 billion and value the company at well over $150 billion.
Now, in addition to launching what could be one of the largest IPOs ever, Alibaba has set its sights on the American online shopping market. But can a Chinese company and its dynamic founder who has “Americanized” the Chinese market “Chinafy” the American market with the same success? What will be the impact on U.S. online commerce and what are the takeaways?
Amazon, eBay and PayPal With a Dash of Google
Hangzhou, China-based Alibaba Group is a collection of Internet-based e-commerce businesses including online web portals, online retail and payment services, a shopping search engine, and online mapping. Alibaba serves as a marketplace, connecting buyers and sellers, and runs a platform where people and merchants go to sell things and people come to buy. Alibaba says it has no desire to sell products itself so as not to compete with the merchants who drive its middleman/facilitator business model.
Alibaba is, by some measures, the world’s largest e-commerce company. According to The Wall Street Journal, transactions completed on its various online sites topped $248 billion in 2013. That’s more than Amazon and eBay combined. Alibaba’s three largest marketplaces—Taobao, Tmall, and Alibaba.com have hundreds of millions of users and host millions of merchants and businesses. Alibaba has been likened to “a mix of Amazon, eBay and PayPal with a dash of Google thrown in.”
The company was founded in 1999 when Hangzhou native Jack Ma created the website Alibaba.com, an English language business-to-business web portal designed to connect Chinese manufacturers with primarily American buyers. Alibaba.com also offers a transaction-based retail website called AliExpress.com, which allows smaller buyers to buy small quantities of goods at wholesale prices.
Alibaba’s consumer-to-consumer portal, Taobao, is similar to eBay and by itself is China’s largest e-commerce site. Founded in 2003, Taobao is a huge online marketplace where more than 8 million sellers sell over 900 million products direct to Chinese consumers. In such a huge marketplace, it can be hard for sellers to stand out, so advertising designed to drive traffic generates the vast majority of Taobao’s revenue. The company’s powerful search engine also directs traffic to sellers and is an important component of the Taobao advertising strategy.
Tmall.com was launched in 2008 to complement Taobao, but instead of individuals and small businesses selling their products, Tmall is where large companies like Nike, Proctor & Gamble, Apple, Gap, and Walt Disney market their global brands to an increasingly affluent Chinese consumer base. These companies pay to be listed on the site and then advertise to compete and get noticed.
Alipay is an online payment escrow service linked to a customer’s bank account that is China’s biggest payments processor and operates similar to PayPal. Ma created Alipay in 2003 after realizing he could not successfully sell online without an escrow service to protect buyers and give them the confidence to do business with smaller merchants. Sellers do not get their money until the buyer is satisfied.
The company has also recently ventured into logistics because of China’s fragmented logistics network. Unlike the U.S. where UPS, FedEx, and the USPS provide quick and efficient delivery of products nationwide, in China there are literally millions of small one or two truck delivery services, along with a dozen or so larger providers. Ma and Alibaba are currently engaged in at least two major initiatives to create a software-based smart network to help integrate these millions of Chinese logistics providers to speed up product delivery all over China.
In June, Alibaba launched its first foray into the American retail marketplace, 11 Main (11Main.com), which hosts more than 1,500 merchants in categories such as clothing, fashion accessories and jewelry, as well as home goods and arts and crafts. 11 Main is intended to be a go-to for unique, interesting, limited edition products. The brand is designed to evoke a Saturday morning stroll amongst the small, unique shops of Main Street as opposed to driving your car to the Wal-Mart parking lot.
In May this year, Ma stepped down as the Alibaba CEO, but he remains the company’s executive chairman as well as a major shareholder. Few people expect the passionate former English teacher to slip away to the sidelines, though. Most view it as delegating the immediate operations to others while Ma continues to set the course for Alibaba as it expands from its China base into a global market.
Entrepreneurialism in China
Dr. James A. Tompkins is an internationally known authority on supply chain strategy and operations. He is founder and CEO of Raleigh-based Tompkins International, a supply chain and logistics consulting firm. Tompkins has studied Alibaba’s success in China and also has considerable insight on how Alibaba will impact the U.S. marketplace.
“In 2014, I believe that Alibaba will do $420 billion in online sales,” predicts Tompkins. “By comparison, in the United States we only do $475 billion online. I also believe that by 2015, Alibaba will become the largest retail platform in the world…even larger than Wal-Mart.”
Tompkins also points out that Alibaba is growing rapidly, with revenue growth running at an astounding 70 percent per year from 2009 to 2013. That rapid growth has also driven profitability to stratospheric levels as Alibaba earns $0.43 in profit out of every dollar of revenue. By contrast, the profit leader in American online commerce is eBay whose margin in 2013 was just 17.8 percent. Alibaba’s amazing success has also helped make China the world’s largest e-commerce market.
“Alibaba’s IPO will be huge because it is based on the rise of the middle class in China,” suggests Tompkins. “Today in China, only a third of the gross domestic product (GDP) comes from consumers. In the U.S., two-thirds of our GDP comes from consumers, so the growth potential for China is enormous.”
Tompkins believes that to understand Alibaba’s goals, you have to understand its visionary founder, Jack Ma. Ma learned English as an unpaid tour guide for foreign visitors, and later taught English in China for five years. But when he saw the Internet for the first time on a visit to the United States in 1995, he immediately saw its potential as a great equalizer at home. “Our competitors are not in China, they are in Silicon Valley,” Ma has been quoted as saying.
“Jack Ma is also seen as the Godfather of entrepreneurs in China,” says Tompkins. “Alibaba has offered other entrepreneurs the opportunity to have a place to build their own business. He has helped millions of entrepreneurs and has revolutionized retailing in China, but the world certainly did not expect to be taught a lesson on entrepreneurism and commerce by China.”
Chinafication and Americanization
From the beginning, Ma said his goal was to create a global business, but his eyes were always on the United States. His first online business, Alibaba.com, was designed to give Chinese manufacturers greater exposure in the West. So when the time came to expand outside of Asia, instead of focusing on other developing markets—like South America and Africa that have some similarities to the logistical challenges faced in China—Ma chose to set his sights squarely on the American market.
“Jack Ma’s area of expertise is not retail; it’s not technology; and it’s not logistics,” says Tompkins. “His area of expertise is the ‘Chinafication’ of things that work in the West. He studies what works in the West, adapts it and brings it to China. So he is extremely aware that when he comes back to the West he now needs to ‘Americanize’ what he did in China. And I think the real goal that Alibaba has for the IPO is to create brand recognition.”
Tompkins says learning about the U.S. market is one of the main reasons Alibaba has spent over a billion dollars on investments in U.S. companies over the last 18 months. These investments include sports merchandiser Fanatics, search engine Quixey, instant messaging service TangoMe, ride sharing and delivery service Lyft, luxury e-commerce 1stdibs, and online retail marketplace ShopRunner.
“His goal for M&A in China has been to increase his success and his profitability, but in the U.S. his goal for M&A has been to learn,” explains Tompkins. “When he’s made acquisitions in the U.S., he’s always asked for board seats to learn about the U.S.”
“Jack Ma practices martial arts, so he follows one of the key principals of Kung Fu, which is he should take your strength and turn it into his strength,” continues Tompkins. “His big competitors are the big American retailers, most of whom are mass merchants. So what does Jack do with his first true American site? He opens 11 Main, which is just the opposite of mass merchandising. It is designed as a personal relationship between a merchant and a customer. You have to request an invitation to join.
“The vision of a Chinese Internet company coming to the United States and being successful is a huge barrier because Americans are just a bit uncomfortable about learning entrepreneurship from a Chinese guy. They view China as a Communist country, so he faces some huge barriers. What he is doing is very Kung Fu.”
But Tompkins believes that 11 Main is just the first step in Alibaba’s American strategy. He says the next step could be the real game changer.
“I think there is also going to be a big marketplace that will not be just unique products,” he says. “In that marketplace he will have stores for office products, stores for toys, stores for women’s merchandise, stores for men’s merchandise, drug stores, grocery stores, and more. I don’t know what he will call it, but I think it will be up and operating before the 2015 holiday season.
“That is the site American retailers have to fear—especially American retailers that do not have a unique product offering. If I am a large department store and I sell Coach and Gucci and Ralph Lauren, I will have a problem, because why would you want to shop with me when you can shop at Jack’s store that has all of those things and is going to give you a really good price.”
But haven’t Amazon, eBay, and other online retailers both big and small been doing quite well in the U.S. market over the last 20 years or so? Can Alibaba really change things in the more mature U.S. online marketplace? Tompkins thinks they can.
“It has to do with being a huge marketplace,” Tompkins suggests. “If you can become big enough to become a destination, you can turn off the other search engines’ spiders because people will come to you first. Merchants will want to be on your site, and then because merchants want to be there, customers want to be there too.
“When more customers do, more and more merchants will as well, and it just snowballs. As the site gets bigger and bigger, merchants have to buy advertising, so they shift their advertising budget away from where it traditionally has been and they give that advertising to Alibaba.
“So the question is how do you get huge? How do you prime the pump? You do that by making your fees very low. The fees for 11 Main are about half or less than they are on the other major U.S. marketplaces that are out there,” Tompkins points out.
“That fee 11 Main charges its merchants is 3.5 percent, but there are three very important exceptions—one is for books, one is for music, and one is for movies. For those, the fee is 0 percent, a strategy that seems aimed squarely at Amazon’s core business,” says Tompkins with emphasis. “That’s Ma’s Kung Fu philosophy in action.”
Fueling the Counteroffensive
If Alibaba is successful in revolutionizing online commerce in the United States, how will that impact the Charlotte region and how should American companies respond? Tompkins says the Charlotte’s region’s retailers, like those anywhere else in America, can’t just play defense, they need to respond with a counteroffensive.
“The first thing is price,” he explains. “Retailers need to reduce operating cost. They need to reduce inventory cost. This will allow them to offer things like free delivery and free returns.
“Second is selection. They need to increase non-stock items as well as stock items. They need to offer a broad selection and they need to own a category.
“Third is convenience. They need to provide the speed of delivery that their customers desire. Most people will not pay for same day or next day delivery. Some people want it quicker, but others are willing to wait.
“Finally is the experience. A merchant needs to offer a personalized and engaging experience. Their customers must feel like they are related to individually.
“A merchant’s supply chain is the fuel for their counteroffensive,” Tompkins continues. “They need to develop a channel strategy, and their channels need to be transparent to their customers. They also need to define their distribution and fulfillment network, something I call ‘Get Local.’ That means they must meet the requirements of the customer from a shipping and logistics point of view.”
Tompkins believes that Charlotte may be well-positioned to take advantage of the need to “Get Local.”
“The Charlotte region is located within a 24 hour drive of 60 percent of the U.S. population,” he explains. “That is very important because if companies are going to ‘Get Local,’ they are going to need to locate in those areas where you can get to locations quickly. So I think that is a big plus for Charlotte.
“Another big plus for the third party logistics providers, and for distribution and warehousing, is where Charlotte is located relative to the east coast ports. Charleston, Savannah, and Wilmington are going to become more important when the Panama Canal widening opens and we find more ships traveling from Asia direct to the east coast as opposed to Asia to the west coast. I see that as a substantial shift.”
While Alibaba may not be a household name here in America just yet, Tompkins says companies need to begin planning their counteroffensive today. “I believe that by the holiday season of 2015, we’re all going to be talking about Alibaba.”