Which is the greatest e-commerce company in the world? I would say Alibaba.
Why? For a start, for all talk of the great Amazon story, despite its first-mover advantage and network effect benefits, we should remember that Amazon is still struggling to make money from its primary activity. The cloud services, AWS, is an entirely different business activity. In stark contrast, Alibaba runs a commercially profitable e-commerce platform.
If you talk about competitiveness, one could, ironically enough, argue that Alibaba has grown in a much more competitive environment than Amazon. For example, Amazon has never faced the sort of competition that Alibaba faced from Tencent - the latter has 37% of the $5.5 trillion payments market to the former's 51%. Its biggest local competitors are similarly spanned out across the digital space. In contrast, again ironically enough in the world of free-markets and competition, Amazon has had the market for easy picking. In fact, in the only market where it has faced competition, China, Amazon has struggled badly. Granted all the stories of China's regulatory and social inhospitability, for a company like Amazon the inability to be even a minor player should count as a matter of concern.
It can be argued that Alibaba is the more innovative and entrepreneurial company. While Amazon's basic e-commerce activity has remained largely the same, except for small tinkering like Prime service etc, Alibaba, despite its late start, has expanded to cover pretty much the entire digital transactions space with Alipay, Yu'e Bao, Youku Tudou, etc. Its future plans include facial recognition payment, one-stop consultation-to-pharmacy online healthcare services, and even establishing an electronic world trade platform (e-WTP or e-WTO). The last is stunningly ambitious, something which only governments would have thought of,
The eWTP will essentially provide the plumbing for cross-border trade: logistics, managing customs clearance and securing favourable tariffs... Alibaba kicked off its grand plan for global trade without frontiers with a bilateral deal designed to ease the passage of goods shipped by smaller businesses between China and Malaysia. The pact, established as a public-private partnership in Malaysia’s digital free trade zone, will focus on infrastructure, including a fulfilment centre and co-operation on electronic payments and financing. So far, it is strictly logistics: favourable tariffs are still under discussion. It is understood to be in talks aimed at making Russia the next hub — one of the biggest markets for international ecommerce site AliExpress — in a move that would be even more challenging. There are plenty of obstacles ahead for Mr Ma’s plan, such as the backlash against trade liberalisation. But if the project gains momentum, he will be able to demonstrate that business — and not government — is flying the flag for globalisation.
It would not be a hyperbole to argue that Alibaba is a digital disruptor compared to Amazon's retail disruptor. It is arguable that its impact on Chinese lives have been far more transformational than any comparable firm today in any sector in any country. In fact, it has taken the baton from the government in driving the digital transactions space in China. Are Indian companies listening? Consider this,
In China, Alibaba’s tentacles reach into almost every aspect of life: shopping, finance, chatting, healthcare, entertainment and news. You can go for weeks in China without cash, swiping your phone to pay for coffee, clothing or utility bills. So ubiquitous is Alipay, its online payment platform, that even some rough sleepers accept it... Alibaba is responsible for one-tenth of China’s retail sales and has the biggest money market fund (Yu’e Bao has Rmb1.14trn under management).
Alibaba may be dominant only in China. But it is China. And don't at all bet against it penetrating into the Western markets. The Chinese diaspora in all these countries may well provide the most likely channel for such penetration. And there are the inorganic routes always available for a cash rich entity like Alibaba, as the example of the acquisition of First Data shows - it provides Alibaba access to the commercial technology provider's 4.5 million business users and their Point of Sale terminals, thereby enabling Alipay match ApplePay on reach.