Rakuten, Alibaba and Amazon: the battle of the electronic storefront

Will logistics issues and complications in the supply chain derail the great pretender(s) ascent to Amazon’s throne? 

Alibaba_Corp

It’s been a good year for founder of the Chinese e-storefront Alibaba – Jack Ma. Ma made more money than anyone on 2014’s rich list – his wealth increased by a colossal 173 per cent ($18.5b) to a total of $29.2b.

But if it intends to break out of China and rival Amazon’s market dominance, are there any obstacles likely to hinder its progress?

Forbes analysts have been looking forward and make the following estimates: “Alibaba’s top-line to expand rapidly driven by enormous growth on its Chinese retail marketplaces.”

It continues: “We estimate China’s Internet penetration rate to surge from around 50% currently to over 65% in the long-run. Additionally, we forecast the number of online shoppers in the country to expand from 302 million in 2013 to more than 700 million by the end of our forecast period. This demand will be buoyed by ease of shopping online, heavy discounting, secure payment mechanisms, fast delivery methods, and an increase in disposable income in the country.” 

Another interesting point to note: “Alibaba does not have to invest as heavily in warehousing and distribution centers unlike other pure-play online retailers which own inventory such as Amazon.”

Amazon vs Alibaba vs Rakuten

Elsewhere, Industry Week commented:

“The jury is still out as to how aggressively Alibaba can move into the US market, largely due to the fulfilment and customer satisfaction footholds held by Amazon and other e-retailers: such as Wayfair. This is not to mention the e-commerce channels of traditional brick-and-mortar companies: such as Macy’s and Walmart.”

“Essentially Alibaba’s role is to coordinate track-and-trace logistics, giving coordinate information for delivery, tendering the funders and clearing it – much like what Amazon does when they sell goods for a third party. Much of Alibaba’s huge share of the market in China is within rural communities, where they don ‘t have to deliver goods within a day or two. They’ll need to establish partnerships with carriers, affiliates and more infrastructure here in the US.”

Industry Week noted that logistics handlers such as UPS and FedEx are unlikely to afford Alibaba the same price breaks it gives to those with established relationships (like Amazon for instance). Someone would need to pay the freight costs – therefore that loss will ultimately either lie with Alibaba, or perhaps go back to the manufacturer. Either way, it’s not an ideal scenario.

rakutenEcosystem

But it’s not just Alibaba that has its sights on Amazon’s throne, Japanese giants Rakuten certainly have grand designs…

Here CB Insights shines a light on Rakuten, and analysed the marketplace’s previous investments:

“Since 2009, over 50% of all acquisitions have been within the eCommerce space, however it has been pushing the firm into other areas. Acquisitions not directly in the eCommerce industry taxonomy included the Alpha Direct Services for supply chain & logistics, and cloud-based technology for on-demand video services (Wuaki.tv). It also gained a network of fulfillment centers in the US.”

Interestingly over a five-year period Rakuten has made no less than nine acquisitions in the eCommerce sphere – spread across eight different countries.

Those of particular note included:

  • In the US: Buy.com (California) and PopShops (Washington)
  • Tarad.com (Thailand)
  • Play.com (UK)
  • PriceMinister (France)

If what they say about competition is true – in that it’s healthy, then these developments must come as welcome news to the multitude of manufacturers, suppliers, importers and exporters for whom such storefronts work hard to attract and make part of their success.

2015 will be about innovations in the logistics world

Looking ahead to 2015, KPMG’s global head of post and express predicts that the New Year will be about co-operation and relationship building. Not only that but understanding and utilising big data; drone and driverless deliveries and creating marketplaces to sell last mile solutions. 

Drones will be big business come 2015

Justin Zatouroff begins:  “Co-operation is likely to be a critical feature for successful supply chains in 2015. Logistics companies and retailers, both on the high street and on the web, will have to develop close relationships so that they don’t keep repeating the annual trauma of delivering the Christmas peak.

Those that haven’t developed relationships and are only after lowest cost solutions may face opportunist pricing or even find that they can’t access any additional capacity as they try to manage during peak periods. The challenge is to create robust networks that have flexible cost bases and capacity that can be enhanced to manage varying loads.”

Zatouroff continues: “Technology will also be key. Reliable forecasting from e-tailers including demand planning will focus attention on big data and the power of real time data analytics. Better understanding of available information and utilising data analytics tools will increase the efficiency of parcel networks and in turn improve the capacity issues faced in the system.” 

And what about the role of technology… How much of an impact will new solutions (such as drones) have on the network?

Zatouroff offers: “Much has been made of the impact of the recent EU changes to HGV driver training but as only 1% of drivers are under the age of 25 this is clearly a problem that has been building for many years. In the long term, technology may help solve this problem too.

Whilst drones are unlikely to be part of the solution in urban areas, they will be effective in less industrialised landscapes and in areas with less developed infrastructure. We’ve already seen DHL use a ‘parcelcopter’ to deliver pharmaceuticals to a German Island to become independent from weather and ferry schedules.”

Elsewhere, another innovative use of technology commanded column-inches in 2014… Will driverless cars roar onto our roads and highways during 2015? Zatouroff thinks not:

“We’re also likely to see developments in driverless deliveries. In the UK, manufacturers have been given the green light by the Government for testing driverless cars as early as January 2015. Bristol, Greenwich, Coventry and Milton Keynes will all host autonomous driving projects that will run for between 18 and 36 months starting. It shouldn’t be too long for lorries and trucks to join the party.

Self-driving vehicles will have the ability not just to transport goods but also to combine other process steps such as loading and unloading in order to increase efficiency of processes. In addition to providing efficiency gains, self-driving vehicles can also significantly increase safety in transport and loading processes.

Finally, how disruptive can the small innovative tech solutions be to the established logistics industry?  Zatouroff can only ponder:

“Will we see more players join the disintermediation of big parcel companies by creating innovative web based companies, like Uber and Shutl, creating a market place style websites linking the provision of last mile solutions direct to the retailer?”