Once Unstoppable, Alibaba Is Now Faltering | Mint

Once Unstoppable, Alibaba Is Now Faltering

 (Photo by JADE GAO / AFP) (AFP)
(Photo by JADE GAO / AFP) (AFP)

Summary

Alibaba was a major driver of China’s growing consumer economy. Now it has lost its lead—even in online shopping.

SINGAPORE—Chinese internet titan Alibaba Group Holding once seemed invincible. Now, it is stuck in a slump.

The e-commerce giant was a major driver of China’s growing consumer economy as it pioneered online shopping in China. Over the years, it also expanded into cloud computing, physical supermarkets and digital entertainment.

Now, its grip on online retail is weakening. In recent months, the company lost a long-running chief executive, while a restructuring plan to revive Alibaba has quickly hit roadblocks. That came after Alibaba and Jack Ma, its co-founder, were slammed by Beijing’s sweeping regulatory crackdown that started three years ago.

After an explosive stock rise following its 2014 initial public offering, Alibaba shares lost most of those gains, now trading near its IPO price. Last week, Alibaba slipped from its long-held market capitalization perch as China’s most valuable online retail company, losing the title to PDD Holdings, which runs e-commerce platforms Temu and Pinduoduo.

“Prior to 2020, China was a market that global investors could not afford to ignore, and Alibaba was the first stock to buy to gain exposure to China," said Vey-Sern Ling, a senior equity adviser at Union Bancaire Privée. That is no longer the case, Ling said.

Many of Alibaba’s woes, such as China halting the IPO of its financial technology affiliate Ant Group in 2020, are related to the government’s effort to rein in the tech sector and its widely known leaders. But Alibaba has had its own challenges specific to its business.

The company hadn’t kept pace with fickle Chinese consumers, who began shifting purchases to social-media platforms and reining in spending as the economy weakened over the past three years.

Alibaba is trying to hit back. It is beefing up content creation and livestreaming and offering more inexpensive items to fend off competitors. The company split into six business units to increase agility in decision-making. Still, Alibaba faces multiple headwinds. Its upstart rivals are nimble and fierce, while China’s weak economy looks set to continue.

Alibaba didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Strategy confusion

Founded in 1999 by Jack Ma, a charismatic former English teacher, Alibaba found success by launching an online retail portal connecting buyers and retailers. Over the years, it morphed into a technology giant, investing in food delivery and ride-sharing startups as well as in short-video platforms. Its affiliates began making movies and films, offering wealth management products and loans.

In late 2020, just as Alibaba seemed about to chalk up its biggest success—a public listing of Ant valued at more than $34 billion—things went sour. Alibaba’s enormous size had put it in the crosshairs of Chinese regulators, who started cracking down on the freewheeling expansion in the country’s internet sector.

The last straw for Chinese officials came when Ma, known for his outspokenness, chastised financial regulators as being slow to adapt to trends. Within days, Beijing had scuttled Ant’s share offering. In 2021, authorities fined Alibaba $2.8 billion, alleging it abused its market position to retain an edge in China’s e-commerce market. Alibaba said then it accepted the penalty and promised to strengthen its compliance systems.

After Alibaba announced its restructuring plan in March, turbulent months followed. First, Daniel Zhang, Ma’s successor, stepped down as CEO and chairman in June, handing the reins to two of Ma’s closest allies. He subsequently resigned from his role as the head of Alibaba’s cloud unit in September to the bewilderment of staff.

“Confused, uncertain, worried," said a midlevel executive in Alibaba’s cloud arm, describing the sense among some employees.

Revenue growth at its cloud unit—the second-largest unit after its domestic shopping division—slowed as a sluggish economy weighed on demand. Alibaba shelved its plan to spin off the unit after it was hit by U.S. export controls restricting access to the highest-performance chips.

Alibaba also put on hold a plan to list its supermarket unit due to weak market conditions.

Over the six quarters to September, Alibaba cut more than 20,000 jobs. Some business units have imposed tougher performance reviews and pushed staff to focus on efficiency and profits, employees said.

Online shopping woes

Alibaba’s main business, online retail, remains under pressure. Alibaba’s share of China’s retail e-commerce sector tumbled to around 40%, down from above 80% when it went public in 2014, according to market researcher Insider Intelligence.

Even as it remains the market leader in China, it has struggled to keep pace with China’s changing consumer habits. Shoppers enjoy making purchases while browsing social media, allowing Shanghai-based PDD to lure consumers with its combination of cheaply-priced goods and entertainment. Much of China’s e-commerce growth also shifted to smaller cities in China, where PDD’s discounted products were better positioned to make inroads. PDD’s holds a 17% share of the market, Insider Intelligence data shows.

In the July-September quarter, PDD almost doubled its revenue, far outpacing Alibaba’s 9% growth.

Low prices, user-friendly experience and good customer service are the key to win over shoppers, but Alibaba over the years has moved in the opposite direction, said Charlie Chai, an analyst at 86Research. For instance, Alibaba at one point focused on adding branded goods to its China marketplace, while its app interface and discount policies got increasingly complex.

To compete, Alibaba in China at times has required vendors to offer discounts. It is also using artificial-intelligence technology to help merchants create content, trying to make its main Taobao shopping platform more fun.

Overseas, Alibaba this year launched a service called AliExpress Choice to compete with shopping sites Temu and Shein. Choice allows vendors to ship their merchandise to Alibaba, leaving the platform to handle logistics and customer services.

In late November, after PDD’s earnings came out, Alibaba employees marveled at their competitor’s growth on an internal forum, according to posts reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Co-founder Ma, who has generally kept a low profile since the crackdown, popped back to respond to such messages. “I am more convinced that Alibaba will change and adapt. All great companies are born in the winter," he said on the forum, calling on Alibaba employees to provide constructive feedback and suggestions for innovation.

Write to Raffaele Huang at raffaele.huang@wsj.com and Liza Lin at liza.lin@wsj.com

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