Alibaba's Lazada plans foray into Europe to challenge Amazon, Zalando

Lazada’s regional headquarters at 51 Bras Basah road in Singapore on April 11, 2022. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Alibaba Group Holding's Lazada Group is preparing to make its maiden foray into Europe, building on its success in South-east Asia to take on rivals such as and Zalando in one of the biggest online shopping markets. 

Its specific plans will depend on macroeconomic and market conditions, Lazada Group chief executive officer James Dong, 43, told Bloomberg News. But it is clear Alibaba is intensifying its global ambitions, in part because of rocky economic conditions back home.

Mr Dong, a one-time business assistant to Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang, took the reins of Alibaba's most important international business unit in June after heading Lazada's Thailand and Vietnam operations. This week, the Chinese parent disclosed that it invested US$912.5 million (S$1.28 billion) in its South-east Asian arm - taking the year’s capital influx to US$1.3 billion. 

“Europe is a very big market... and for most of the European brands, their largest retail partner is Alibaba Group because of their sales in China and in other markets,” Mr Dong said in an interview in Singapore. “We go where the brands want us to go.”

A European push by Lazada would mark a revival in Alibaba's global ambitions, which have slowed in recent years in the face of torrid competition from Amazon and Tencent Holdings-backed Sea Limited. The Chinese company has also had a mixed record beyond its home turf. It dipped a toe in American retail by launching California-based 11 Main before its record 2014 initial public offering (IPO), only to sell the niche e-commerce site shortly after.

In 2016, Alibaba won a foothold in South-east Asia by taking control of Lazada. Just a year later, co-founder Jack Ma declared that Alibaba could some day become the world's fifth-largest economy, serving some two billion people - a boast that was covered widely at the time but has rarely been mentioned since Covid-19, a punishing government crackdown and economic downturn extinguished its once-rapid pace of growth. Mr Ma himself became a target of Beijing, which killed Ant Group's IPO after the billionaire publicly criticised China's state-dominated banking system in 2020.

Given its woes at home, Alibaba is now once more intent on revitalising the company by tapping overseas markets. Lazada has arguably been its most successful endeavour abroad of late, alongside the bargains website AliExpress that has grown popular in emerging markets such as Brazil.

Lazada's increasing investments are in a stark contrast to arch-rival Shopee, the e-commerce unit of Singapore's Sea, which has been retreating after years of aggressive international push from Brazil to Poland to drive growth beyond South-east Asia. Shopee pulled out of France as well as India in March, just months after launching its operations in those markets as it tried to boost profitability.

Sea has suffered a run of setbacks this year, including a sudden ban of its most popular mobile game in India. Its shares have plunged about 70 per cent this year as investor appetite for growth stocks waned amid a global equity market downturn. Sea has said it plans to focus on South-east Asia, Taiwan and Brazil rather than spending aggressively to enter new markets.

Lazada, meanwhile, has been investing in businesses such as Indonesian digital wallet provider Dana, in which it put in a total of US$304.5 million, according to a stock exchange filing. It also led a RM750 million (S$236 million) financing in TNG Digital, the owner and operator of Malaysia's largest e-wallet company Touch 'n Go.

"We are continuously investing," Mr Dong said. Lazada's investments such as Dana and TNG Digital "show a very high level of commitment in this climate".

Lazada plans to add a few hundred employees in Indonesia in the coming months and expand its office space in Jakarta to drive growth in South-east Asia's biggest and most important market. Lazada, which was started 10 years ago, currently operates in six countries including Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Alibaba wants Lazada to serve more than 300 million users by 2030, doubling from 150 million customers now. BLOOMBERG

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