China's E-Commerce Giant


Just how dominant is Alibaba in China’s booming e-commerce market? The homegrown Amazon/EBay mashup accounted for more than three-quarters of the nation’s online retail sales in the first half of 2015. The company logged $14.3 billion of transactions during its annual shopathon, a 60 percent jump from 2014. The business done over its sites accounted for the equivalent of almost 2 percent of China’s GDP in 2012. There are lots of attention-grabbing Internet companies that hope to make money off of trend-hopping teens; Alibaba is building an empire on the spending power of Chinese farmers, laborers and white-collar workers. That could add up: By the end of 2015, some 850 million Chinese are expected to be online — more than twice the population of any other country except India. As if that market wasn’t big enough, it’s also casting its eyes overseas.

The Situation

In September 2014, Alibaba raised $25 billion in the largest U.S. public offering ever, at a share price that valued the company at $168 billion. Alibaba generated $12.3 billion in sales in the 2015 financial year, a 45 percent increase from the year before. But China’s economic slowdown has dulled some of the shine: Alibaba missed key earnings estimates, it replaced the CEO, and its shares dipped below their IPO price. Alibaba also faces competition from Chinese companies like Tencent and Baidu. In response, it’s investing heavily in reaching customers through smartphones and tablets, as well as robots and drones. It owns stakes in messaging application TangoMe and ride-sharing program Lyft (now expanding to serve over 60 U.S. cities), has its own mobile operating system and is leasing spectrum from state-owned phone companies to offer mobile voice and data packages. At the same time, the company has gained significant numbers of customers in countries as diverse as Brazil and Russia. A tussle with the Chinese government over charges of bribery and toleration of counterfeit goods, while quickly patched up, was a reminder of the risks of doing business in a one-party state.

Source: Bloomberg
Source: Bloomberg

The Background

Alibaba was founded in 1999 by former English teacher Jack Ma, who scraped together $80,000 from 80 investors to start an online marketplace for Chinese companies. He became the richest man in China and his estimated net worth has topped $30 billion. When Ma saw a need for an Internet search engine partner, he connected with Yahoo! Inc. co-founder Jerry Yang. Yahoo paid $1 billion for a 40 percent stake in Alibaba in 2005. Alibaba’s Taobao Marketplace, which links individual buyers and sellers, and, which connects retailers and consumers, offer everything from Alaska salmon to Boeing 747s. The company makes money from commissions on sales and through fees for memberships and other services. A large part of its growth has been fueled by mom-and-pop shops like those run by Liu Yuguo, a former farmer who has transformed his village in eastern China by taking its traditional yarn businesses online. Alibaba said in 2014 more than 22 percent of its 7 million stores were based in villages and towns. Alibaba aggressively defends its turf: When rival EBay made a foray into China in 2003, Alibaba countered by eliminating merchants’ fees on Taobao. Two years later, EBay closed its unprofitable China Web unit.

Source: China Internet Network Information Center
Source: China Internet Network Information Center

The Argument

The gigantic value the market placed on Alibaba when it went public speaks for the bullish view of its growth potential. Yet its sagging value in mid-2015 showed that some investors may be wary that Alibaba will suffer as China’s economic growth cools. Enthusiasm for Chinese Internet companies had waned broadly and some investors expressed reservations about Alibaba’s management in light of its proposed board and corporate structures. Others worry about political risk, especially after the charges related to the selling of counterfeit goods. And increasing competition on Taobao and Tmall is squeezing profit margins for merchants like yarn-seller Liu. Alibaba is seeking to offset any slowdown in China by expanding more quickly overseas, including in the U.S. Ma has set a goal of getting 50 percent of the company’s revenue from beyond China.

The Reference Shelf

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First Published April 27, 2014

To contact the writers of this QuickTake:

Lulu Yilun Chen in Hong Kong at

Aaron Clark in Tokyo at

To contact the editors responsible for this QuickTake:

Michael Tighe at

John O'Neil at