Alibaba Group conquers China slowdown

Going into this quarter the main concern for Alibaba was that a slowdown in Chinese economic growth would damage its performance.

Fortunately, this has not materialised with very solid uplifts in its Chinese retail marketplace proposition underpinning a respectable 32 per cent rise in overall revenues.

Some of this uplift was undoubtedly aided by the company’s very strong performance over the Singles Day shopping festival in November. During this time, it attracted over 115 million visitors to its marketplaces and processed some 467 million orders across all of its platforms during a 24-hour period. The fact that its systems and infrastructure coped well with this volume, which is around 10 times more than the usual daily average, is a testament to Alibaba’s technological prowess, especially in areas like cloud computing.

This focus on technology is also helping Alibaba to understand the habits and preferences of Chinese consumers as they browse and navigate the group’s various sites, news feeds, and entertainment options. This understanding puts Alibaba in a prime position when it comes to helping Western brands expand into China. In many ways Alibaba and its marketplaces are the ideal conduit through which foreign retailers can target and reach appropriate audiences. In our view this remains one of the main sources of commercial advantage for the company.

Despite its success at home, Alibaba has struggled to gain traction in already established markets like the US. While this was once a stated ambition, and perhaps remains a long term goal, it is clearly not the main agenda for the year ahead. Indeed, over the latest quarter the proportion of revenue from international operations shrunk by 1 percentage point and the growth rate of 17 per cent, while respectable, was well below that of the Chinese operation.

As much as this will no doubt come as a relief to many Western retailers, it is the right decision. Despite its dominance in the country, Alibaba’s growth potential in China remains enormous – especially as it expands operations into more rural areas. As such, chasing lower margin, profit eroding international gains for the sake of vanity makes little sense.

That noted, over the longer term Alibaba would like to become more international. The route it will take, however, is likely to be one of investing in, and partnering with, local players in order to grow its share and presence. The company clearly has the financial muscle to undertake such corporate activity and we expect to see more of this in 2016 and the years beyond.

  • Neil Saunders is CEO of retail analyst Conlumino.

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