HANGZHOU, China - Alibaba Group's plans to revolutionise China's retail industry, investing US$16 billion (S$19.94 billion) in logistics and support by 2020, will open up China's vast interior and bring access to hundreds of millions of potential new customers.
With an extra US$15 billion or so in its pocket from a likely IPO, Alibaba and partners such as delivery service firms and life insurers will pump cash into revamping China's fragile supply chains and big new data centres to process reams of consumer information.
While Alibaba sees itself as a catalyst for change, its plans also lay the groundwork for retail rivals to chip away at its business further down the line. By encouraging retailers to be more Internet-savvy, and by building the networks to distribute goods nationwide, Alibaba is showing bricks and mortar rivals how to grow online without depending on its sites.
Companies such as GOME Electrical Appliances, Haier Electronics Group Co and Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group have branched into e-commerce, riding Alibaba's coattails and reaping the rewards with their own online stalls on Alibaba's websites.
CEO Jonathan Lu says Alibaba expects to nearly triple the volume of transactions on its marketplaces to about 3 trillion yuan (US$490 billion) by 2016, overtaking Wal-Mart Stores Inc as the world's biggest retail network.
And the message to retailers from the group's sprawling campus headquarters in Hangzhou, less than an hour's train ride southwest of Shanghai, is simple: adapt or die.
"The old companies that aren't willing to transform will be wiped out by competition," said Zeng Ming, Alibaba's chief strategy officer. "Most traditional retailers now understand if they don't move online, their time is limited."
Analysts predict e-commerce will account for a fifth of total retail sales in China within 5 years, up from just 6 per cent last year.
"The pot is huge and most retail growth, and the fastest growth, is going to be in e-commerce," said Boaz Rottenberg, managing director of China-based market researcher Maverick China. "If you look at all consumer spending, a big chunk is online. It's disproportionate compared to other countries."