New Straits Times

It's time for Alibaba to slay the monster Jack Ma created

- By Tim Culpan

ALIBABA Group Holding Ltd should put its Singles’ Day shopping extravagan­za out to pasture.

The annual event, which has been going for a decade, started as a marketing gimmick for an upstart e-commerce company looking to draw a crowd.

And it did.

The 24-hour shopping period, during which Alibaba and its vendors offer big discounts while celebritie­s (Taylor Swift this year) jet in to entertain crowds, is focused on one number: gross merchandis­e value (GMV), a fancy word for turnover, or the amount of money that sloshes through the cyber cash registers of the company’s e-commerce platforms.

GMV grew more than 4,000 times between 2009 and 2018, hitting US$30.8 billion (RM127.30 billion) last year.

But the metric is meaningles­s. There are ways to juice the figure, and it has almost zero correlatio­n with Alibaba’s revenue or profit. In fact, Alibaba stopped reporting GMV in its quarterly financials two years ago (though it still references growth in the number).

“It doesn’t represent our true identity, and overemphas­ising it makes people just think about ecommerce,” said founder and then-chairman Jack Ma at the 2016 shopping gala.

Yet the company went ahead and shouted those numbers from the rooftops the following year. And the year after.

“Eye-popping numbers,” said Alibaba of last year’s record.

I suspect this is because without a shiny big new number, the event would lose its lustre. That in turn has created a spur to find new ways to inflate the figure, such as taking orders early, avoiding processing refunds on that day and offering incentives to transact.

News that Alibaba is moving ahead with plans to raise as much as US$15 billion selling shares in Hong Kong adds impetus for the firm to report a bumper Nov 11.

It isn’t as though Alibaba invented Singles’ Day. Represente­d by the 11/11 date, it has been around since the early ’90s as a student celebratio­n of single life.

Ma and an executive named Daniel Zhang simply commercial­ised it, similar to the way retailers turned Valentine’s Day into a smorgasbor­d of cheap chocolates, fluffy toys, and bad dates.

Alibaba doesn’t want to be just an e-commerce company anymore.

Zhang, who has risen through the ranks and took over as chairman from Ma two months ago, is hoping to lean more heavily on new businesses such as cloud computing, digital media and entertainm­ent, offline retail, and local services such as deliveries.

But the company cannot move into the post-Ma era if it keeps focusing on the GMV.

As long as the annual shopping event persists with a singular focus on sales numbers and gimmicky discounts, then the entire company and its investors would be stuck with the mindset that Alibaba is merely an e-commerce company.

“If we don’t kill our existing business, someone else will,” said Zhang in an interview in September.

He is right. And he knows what he needs to do.

 ?? BLOOMBERG PIC ?? Alibaba’s gross merchandis­e value for Singles’ Day grew more than 4,000 times since it started in 2009, hitting US$30.8 billion last year alone.
BLOOMBERG PIC Alibaba’s gross merchandis­e value for Singles’ Day grew more than 4,000 times since it started in 2009, hitting US$30.8 billion last year alone.

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