E-COMMERCE: Alibaba’s Tmall Steps Into Southeast Asia

Bottom line: Alibaba’s launch of its popular Tmall into several markets with large Chinese populations shows it is still looking for a strong overseas formula, underscoring its dependence on China for the foreseeable future.

Tmall marches into Singapore

E-commerce juggernaut Alibaba (NYSE: BABA) is making its latest global expansion noise with word that it will launch a version of its popular B2C Tmall online marketplace targeting overseas buyers in Southeast Asia. I have to admit I’m not completely sure about the significance of the move, since the company already has a wide ranging network covering a number of overseas markets through its AliExpress and Lazada services.

The bottom line seems to be that Alibaba is taking a somewhat fragmented and multi-brand approach to the overseas market, as it searches for formulas for success in an area that so far has been somewhat elusive. The company only derives about 10 percent of its revenue from overseas operations at the moment, despite numerous attempts to develop markets outside China.

This latest move seems to return to an older theme that has Alibaba hoping to take advantage of its Chinese roots to expand to markets with other large Chinese populations. The company’s affiliated Ant Financial has taken a similar tack, launching its popular Alipay electronic payments services in a wide range of markets that are popular for overseas Chinese travelers.

While such overseas Chinese are certainly an important market, it does remain to be seen whether Alibaba can ever break out of its Chinese fortress and truly attract some non-Chinese customers at some point. I suspect the answer will eventually be a “yes”, though it clearly will take some time.

All that said, let’s take a look at the latest headlines that have Alibaba announcing the formal launch of its Tmall World, a global outlet of its popular Tmall that is one of its two main online shopping malls in China populated mostly by larger retailers selling to consumers (B2C). The reports say Tmall World will initially host geographically-specific interfaces for Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, regions with large populations of both overseas Chinese and also their own domestic ethnic Chinese. (English article)

The site will allow users in those markets to buy goods from Alibaba’s Chinese Tmall site. There’s not much more in the announcement, except to say that Alibaba plans to expand the service to other markets in the years ahead.

Lofty, But Distant, Targets

One report on the roll-out notes that Alibaba is aiming to have 1.2 billion overseas customers within the next 15 years, a forecast given by founder Jack Ma at a company event last week. That’s quite an ambitious target considering the company’s two main international sites, AliExpress and Lazada, have a combined user base of just 83 million people at the moment, according to the company’s latest earnings report. By comparison, users on its China sites number nearly 500 million.

Alibaba does point out that AliExpress, which is active in quite a few overseas markets, and Lazada are both growing rapidly. But that said, this latest push into Southeast Asia with Tmall World does appear to be slightly contradictory, since those markets are already served by Lazada.

Investors certainly seem to be giving Alibaba plenty of slack in the drive to go global, probably encouraged by the company’s continued strong growth at home. Alibaba said last week it expects revenue to grow by 45-49 percent in the current year, which is quite strong by any standards. The stock shot up after that forecast, and is now up an impressive 58 percent year to date.

At the end of the day, I suppose we should commend Alibaba for taking a more multi-pronged approach to the global market rather than placing all its bets on one service. But that approach also shows the company is still looking for the right way to go about its global expansion after several false starts in the past, and Jack Ma is probably quite smart to be giving international growth targets that are still 15 years off in the future.


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