Alibaba Group tried to plant its flag atop the retail mountain, but found some skeptics.
The Chinese Web giant said in a sparse filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that as of the end of its fiscal year on March 31, “it has become the largest retail economy in the world as measured by annual gross merchandise volume on its China retail marketplaces. PricewaterhouseCoopers has performed agreed-upon procedures on data relevant to Alibaba Group’s [gross merchandise volume].”
The carefully worded statement was clearly a shot at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which for its year ended Jan. 31 logged revenues of $485.65 billion.
In declaring itself the world’s top retail banana, Alibaba is taking something of an apples-and-oranges approach, since it is counting the value of the goods sold through its platform instead of its own revenues.
However, the company said in a statement to WWD: “Alibaba has a unique business model where we serve as a third-party retail marketplace that enables sales between sellers and buyers. The total value of the orders made on our marketplaces is how we measure our GMV. Other retailers have a different business model where they serve as first-party sellers. In those cases, their registered sales is measured by revenue. Therefore, based on our latest GMV, we have the biggest retail economy in the world.”
Last month, Joe Tsai, Alibaba’s group executive vice chairman, said its China retail marketplace platforms had logged GMV of 3 trillion yuan, or about $476 billion, with 10 days remaining in its fiscal year. Alibaba hasn’t weighed in with its full results yet, but Wall Street analysts have pegged it for a 32.9 percent jump in revenues — to $23.15 billion.
A Wal-Mart spokesman declined to comment on Alibaba’s assertion. But the assault comes at a tough time for the retailer, which has been scrambling to build its Web business and took a hit last year, recording a top-line setback with a 0.7 percent drop while profits slipped. Wal-Mart’s profits still weighed in at $14.7 billion.
(Separately, Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos told investors, “This year, Amazon became the fastest company ever to reach $100 billion in annual sales” and defended his company’s aggressive corporate culture).
While Alibaba was clear in that it was talking about its GMV, the move generally provoked a strong response from the retail experts contacted by WWD.
“This kind of self-aggrandizement and pompous, no-value added one-upmanship is too ‘Donald Trump’ childish stuff for me to be attached to,” said one retail veteran.
The expert consensus was that the businesses were too different to yield a meaningful comparison (or for anyone to declare victory).
Charles O’Shea, the debt and retail analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, said, “Wal-Mart is a physical retailer that gets products from its vendors and sells them to the end consumer. That’s a different business model than Alibaba….You don’t really have Alibaba and Wal-Mart going head to head in many geographies.”
The lion’s share of Alibaba’s business is in China, where it helps connect buyers and sellers and provides numerous services along the way, including financing and marketing, but has no physical infrastructure.
Antony Karabus, ceo of HRC Advisory, said, “I don’t believe that it’s in any way a fair comparison. Wal-Mart is a very important and also the first and most important destination for a very large number of consumers in their target range.”
Alibaba, however, does provide a shopping experience that’s become very important to the Chinese shopper and has therefore grabbed market share from someone.
“It doesn’t make them a retailer,” Karabus said. “It means they provide a platform. It’s much like Google with Android.”
Clearly, the comparison with Wal-Mart is an important one for Alibaba founder Jack Ma.
In 2014, Ma said at a conference: “I remember seven or eight years ago, maybe six years ago, I was drinking and chatting with a senior executive of Wal-Mart. I said that in 10 years, Alibaba’s sales revenues will surpass Wal-Mart’s. He said, ‘Young man, you have a vision, but take it slow. It will probably take at least 50 years.’”
Ma said in the coming decade there will be a company with GMV of more than $1 trillion.
“In the past, people did not expect Wal-Mart’s sales revenue could reach $500 billion. It is scary. [Wal-Mart’s] $500 billion would require several million staff. It’s huge. Alibaba probably only needs 30,000 employees to create sales revenue as big as Wal-Mart’s. In order to have 10,000 more customers, they need to buy a big piece of land and buy a lot of equipment and stuff. We only need three more servers.”
With its focus on China, Alibaba doesn’t square off directly with Wal-Mart or Amazon. But it’s a small retail world and they’re all vying to be global players, putting them on a collusion course that will make the size comparison more relevant.