Why Alibaba is going big on logistics

March 14, 2019 10:16
With the investment in STO Express, Alibaba now has stakes in four of China's six major courier service firms. Photo: Sohu

Alibaba's move to acquire 14.65 percent stake in STO Express (002468.CN) represents the Chinese e-commerce giant's latest effort to strengthen its control over the nation's courier service sector.

The 4.66 billion yuan (US$693 million) deal will make Alibaba the second largest shareholder of STO Express.

There are six major players in China’s courier sector, STO Express being one of them. The other five are ZTO Express, YTO Express, Best Express, Yunda Express and SF Express.

Following the latest acquisition, Alibaba owns stakes in four of the big courier firms. In addition, the e-commerce titan has other related investments in companies such as Suning Logistics and Haier Electric's logistic unit.

Alibaba’s logistics arm Cainiao is also making big investments, including a joint venture project to build a US$1.5 billion facility at Hong Kong International Airport.

Why is Alibaba so keen on expanding its footprint in the courier industry?

One reason has to do with its delicate relationship with long-time partner SF Express.

With a market share of 7.6 percent, SF Express is the smallest among the six but probably most well-known. Its success has been tied to the online shopping boom sparked by Taobao.

SF Express currently gets over 60 percent of its business from Taobao and Tmall. Over half of Taobao and Tmall customers would choose SF Express as their top courier service provider.

SF Express focuses on corporate clients and online shopping clients, and hence charges higher fees than rivals. By contrast, the other five competitors mainly compete in the mass market parcel delivery sector.

As a result, SF Express and Alibaba depend heavily on each other. The mutual reliance sometimes leads to mutual suspicion and fights.

In 2017, Alibaba’s Cainiao came to a standoff with SF Express, as the two accused each other of excessive use of customer data.

At a point, Alibaba removed SF Express as a shipping option and advised merchants to select alternative delivery methods. The standoff ended after the State Post Bureau stepped in.

With stakes in ZTO, YTO, Best and now STO, Alibaba doesn't have to worry too much if its relationship with SF Express goes sour again.

Another strategic benefit is that it will give Alibaba strong influence over the evolvement of the logistics networks, and the future introduction of advanced technologies to revolutionize the sector.

China’s courier service industry remains labor intensive despite fast-evolving technologies. The logistic costs represent 15 percent of the nation’s GDP. Alibaba founder Jack Ma has an ambitious goal to reduce that to 5 percent through the adoption of Big Data, smart warehouses, robot deliveries, etc.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 13

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist