【英语中国】阿里巴巴:中国电商拓荒者 Alibaba has almost single-handedly brought ecommerce to China

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所属分类:双语中国

2014-3-27 08:53

小艾摘要: Shopping in China can be a nightmare. First there are the hazards of simply leaving your home: the smog, the traffic and the crowds. Then you have two options: go to a modern shopping mall, where you ...
Alibaba has almost single-handedly brought ecommerce to China
Shopping in China can be a nightmare. First there are the hazards of simply leaving your home: the smog, the traffic and the crowds. Then you have two options: go to a modern shopping mall, where you can buy western branded goods, made in China, for twice what you would pay for them in the west; or you can try your luck at the markets, where sellers haggle aggressively, overcharging everyone they can – and you never know if what you are buying is real or fake.

What if someone could take this unpleasant experience and make it convenient and quick? Force monopolistic sellers to compete and make it harder for them to rip you off? Give consumers better information about the sellers they are buying from and the products they are buying? Push prices down and facilitate thousands of new small businesses in the process?

This is what Jack Ma has done, almost single-handedly, creating an ecommerce juggernaut known as Alibaba.

The venture has taken the nightmare of shopping in China and transformed it into a painless, virtual experience, where sellers compete with each other and are rated by shoppers for quality and delivery. Alibaba websites, Taobao and Tmall, are as cluttered and in-your-face as a downtown bazaar but with all of the convenience and little of the hassle – and they boast the lowest prices anywhere.

Wang Chun, head of ecommerce for Kudipets, which sells pet supplies on Tmall, Alibaba’s business-to-consumer site, says ecommerce would never have taken off in China if offline shopping were not so arduous. “It’s not like America here where everything is convenient and cheap,” he says. “The only place to shop conveniently in China is online.”

Alibaba, says Michael Clendenin, research analyst at RedTech Advisors, a business consultancy based in Shanghai, “is like an open-air flea market. They say, ‘we’ll bring in the shoppers, we’ll rent you [the] floor space, you are responsible for making the money.’

“What Jack Ma did is he transferred that whole model online. [Alibaba drives] traffic to the site and the merchants do the rest.”

Of course, it has not all been smooth sailing – Taobao, Alibaba’s consumer-to-consumer sales portal, which is similar to eBay, has had to crack down on sellers after it gained a reputation for selling counterfeit goods.

Alibaba also gets poor marks for transparency and corporate governance: Ma’s biggest red flag is his 2010 move to bring Alibaba’s $5bn online payments subsidiary, Alipay, under his personal control, without board approval, provoking a battle with other shareholders, including US internet giant Yahoo.

But it seems nothing can quell the hype surrounding Alibaba, which is set to increase this spring as the company plans what is expected to be one of the biggest ever initial public offerings which, according to a consensus among analysts, could value the company at more than $100bn.

It is a stunning valuation for a company that has risen from nowhere in recent years, faces hard questions about its corporate governance, publishes little information about itself and has few tangible assets.

Unlike Amazon, Alibaba has no inventory or logistics, and does not sell anything itself, aside from space on its servers and advertising for its search engine. “It is a pure platform,” says Clendenin. “Basically, it sells traffic.”

Alibaba has been successful largely because it has leapfrogged offline shopping. Chinese people have grown comfortably into ecommerce. Delivery companies run cheap, flawless same-day delivery, and sellers compete in price wars with razor-thin margins, sometimes seemingly content to lose money in exchange for market share. Taobao and Tmall boast 80 per cent and just over 50 per cent of their respective markets.

Small sellers are waking up to the possibilities of ecommerce in the world’s largest consumer market by population but where rocketing property prices have made shop ownership prohibitive.

Take the experience of Zhang Ming, a Beijing entrepreneur who three years ago was selling oil paintings from a stall in a shopping mall. He says he was paying 30 per cent of his revenues in rent. Today, his stall is closed and he sells exclusively on Taobao.

He says he has twice the sales and spends 16 per cent of his revenues on maintaining his Alibaba site. Prices are lower on Taobao because of all the competition. “The margins are lower, but you make your money with higher sales,” says Zhang.

Sellers pay for placement on Taobao, and everything from search rank to paid placement are up for auction. The biggest competition is for the “diamond”, a banner advert that shows up according to different keyword searches. Merchants can expect to pay a 6 per cent store fee and between 10 and 30 per cent of their revenues for advertising on Taobao and Tmall.

Presiding over all this is Ma, a character fond of outlandish performances and over-the-top company parties where he has appeared dressed as everything from Snow White to a member of the rock band Kiss. In 1999, he founded Alibaba with 17 friends in his flat. Today, it employs 16,000 people.

Born in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou in 1964, Ma Yun (Jack Ma’s Chinese name) was born into showbusiness. His parents earned their living as performers of pingtan, a traditional musical storytelling art. As a child, Ma was bad at maths but fascinated by English and decided early on that he would devote himself to learning the language, working for free as a tour guide in order to practise.

In 1994, he travelled to the US for the first time after founding his own translation company. There, he encountered the force that would change his life: the internet. At the time, China’s state media were not allowed even to mention its existence, but Ma was awestruck by the possibilities of a medium that could put China’s huge population in touch with one another.

Another fateful encounter came when Ma went to work for the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, where one day he was assigned to take a US visitor on a tour of the Great Wall. The visitor was Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo.

The first competitor Alibaba saw off was eBay, which dominated China’s ecommerce market but faltered when it switched traffic to US servers, resulting in slow performance. Users ditched eBay in droves, leading Ma to quip: “Ebay may be a shark in the ocean, but I am a crocodile in the Yangtze. If we fight in the ocean, we lose, but if we fight in the river, we win.”

Taobao’s market share in the consumer-to-consumer section of ecommerce hovers between 80 and 90 per cent.

Thanks to Ma’s friendship with Yang, Yahoo paid $1bn for a 40 per cent stake in Alibaba and handed its China operations over to Ma to run. However, Ma soon began to complain he had sold too large a stake to Yahoo, and tried to convince the US company to sell part of it back.

Tension led in 2011 to Ma shifting ownership of the Alipay online payment business to a company he controlled personally, saying it was necessary to get around government restrictions. It also made the point to Yahoo that Ma could do what he pleased.

Faced with such hard-nosed tactics, which threatened to erode its investment, Yahoo finally agreed to sell half its shares for $7.1bn.

Competition is so fierce in China’s ecommerce market that the smallest missteps can have lasting consequences. Taobao has had to move quickly to address concerns about fraud by sellers after the site acquired a reputation for fake goods. The company has responded by getting tough with sellers and, as a result, some are exploring options with competing websites.

Ma has raised eyebrows for his uncritical support for repressive policies of the Chinese government. For example, Yahoo’s decision to hand over private email information to the Chinese authorities – made before Ma took over Yahoo China – had led to at least two Chinese journalists and democracy advocates being imprisoned for subversion.

“We create value for the shareholders and the shareholders do not want us to oppose the government and go bankrupt,” Ma said at the time. “Whatever [government officials] say, we will do it.”

In July 2013 Ma again caused controversy when, during an interview with the South China Morning Post, he reportedly labelled the 1989 massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square as “the most correct decision” at the time. He later claimed that his comments had been taken out of context and there had been a “terrible misunderstanding”, though the newspaper stands by its reporting.

Ma is both Alibaba’s greatest genius and at times, it seems, its biggest liability. But for Alibaba’s investors, he is integral to its continued success. “Ma is a little crazy,” says Li Siyuan, who sells flowers on Taobao from his Beijing flat and has a book of Ma’s collected speeches on his bookshelf.

“But if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have my business.”

在中国购物,体验可能如噩梦一般。首先,光是离开家门就会遭遇种种危险:雾霾、车流和拥挤的人群。接下来,你面临两种选择:要么去现代化的购物中心,在那里,你可以买到中国制造的西方品牌商品,只不过其价格两倍于在西方的售价;要么可以去市场里碰碰运气,那里的卖家拼命与顾客讨价还价,尽可能地多“宰”顾客一些钱,而且,你无从知道自己购买的到底是真货还是假货。

假如有人能把这种不愉快的购物体验变成方便、快捷的体验,迫使垄断市场的卖家相互竞争、加大他们宰客的难度,为消费者提供更完善的卖家信息和产品信息,压低价格并在这一过程中为成千上万家新生小企业提供方便,那会怎样?

马云(Jack Ma)几乎凭一己之力做到了这一切,他缔造了电子商务巨擘阿里巴巴(Alibaba)。

这家企业已把在中国购物的噩梦般体验改造为一种轻松的虚拟体验,卖家相互竞争,买家可以评价它们的商品质量和物流服务。阿里巴巴旗下的网站淘宝(Taobao)和天猫(Tmall)像市中心的集市那样熙熙攘攘、商品琳琅满目,但它们极为方便、少了许多麻烦,而且还提供市面最低价。

酷迪宠物(Kudipets)在阿里巴巴的B2C网站天猫上销售宠物用品。它的电子商务主管王春(音译)表示,如果不是线下购物如此费力的话,电子商务本不会在中国得到蓬勃发展。“这里不像美国,件件东西都便宜,买起来也方便。在中国,唯一能便捷购物的地方就是网上。”

上海商业咨询机构睿析科技(RedTech Advisors)的研究分析师迈克尔?克伦德宁(Michael Clendenin)表示,阿里巴巴“像是一个露天跳蚤市场,也就是说,‘我们把顾客带进来,我们租给你店面,你负责赚钱’。”

“马云做的是将整套模式搬到线上。(阿里巴巴)为网站带来流量,剩下的事情由商家完成。”

当然,一切并非一帆风顺。阿里巴巴旗下与eBay类似的C2C销售门户网站淘宝一度以出售假货闻名,之后它不得不出手整顿卖家。

阿里巴巴的透明度和公司治理也表现不佳:马云最令人警惕的举措是在2010年不经董事会批准,将阿里巴巴旗下价值50亿美元的在线支付业务支付宝(Alipay)置于其个人控制之下,引发了与其他股东的纠纷,其中包括美国互联网巨头雅虎(Yahoo!)。

不过看上去,似乎没有什么能扑灭与阿里巴巴有关的宣传报道。今年春天,这类报道注定将不断增加,因为该公司正计划举行首次公开发行(IPO)。这次IPO有望成为史上最大的IPO之一。分析师一致认为,阿里巴巴的估值或将因此达到1000亿美元以上。

对于一家近些年才从零起步发展起来、而且面临公司治理难题、自身透明度低、有形资产少之又少的公司,这一估值堪称天文数字。

与亚马逊(Amazon)不同,阿里巴巴没有库存和物流,自身也不销售任何商品,只提供服务器空间和搜索引擎广告服务。克伦德宁表示:“它是纯粹的平台,本质上卖的是流量。”

阿里巴巴之所以成功,很大程度上是因为它跳过了线下购物。中国人轻松地接受了电子商务。物流公司经营着廉价、完美的同日快递服务,卖家大打价格战、利润微薄,有时为了争夺市场份额甚至似乎愿做赔本买卖。淘宝和天猫在各自市场的份额分别为80%和略高于50%。

按人口计,中国是世界最大的消费市场,但房地产价格飙升导致拥有实体店的成本高得令人望而却步。因此,小卖家纷纷注意到电子商务的机遇。

以张明(音译)的经历为例。这位北京的创业者三年前在一家购物中心租店面卖油画。他说,当时他30%的收入都用来支付租金。如今,他关掉了店面,专门在淘宝上卖画。

张明表示,现在他的销售额翻了一番,16%的收入用于维护他在阿里巴巴的网店。激烈的竞争压低了淘宝上商品的售价。他说:“虽然利润减少,但你可以通过提高销量赚钱。”

卖家要为在淘宝上打广告付费,不论是搜索排名还是付费搜索广告(paid placement),都要通过拍卖竞价。最激烈的是对“钻石展位”的争夺,用户输入各种关键词搜索后呈现出的旗帜广告,就是“钻石展位”之一。商家缴纳的店铺费用可达其收入的6%,在淘宝和天猫上的广告费用可达其收入的10%至30%。

主导这一切的就是马云。他喜欢搞稀奇古怪的表演和极其高调的公司聚会,在这些聚会上,他装扮过各种角色,从白雪公主到Kiss摇滚乐队的某位成员。1999年,马云与17位朋友在自己的公寓里创建了阿里巴巴。如今,该公司有1.6万名员工。

1964年,马云出生于杭州市一个文艺工作者家庭。他的父母靠传统说唱艺术“评弹”为生。小时候,马云的数学不好,但很喜欢英语,所以他很早就决定要一门心思学英语。为了练习说英语,他曾免费给别人当导游。

1994年,他在创建自己的翻译公司后第一次去了美国。在那里,他遭遇了后来改变他人生的力量——互联网。当时,中国官方媒体甚至不准提世界存在互联网这种东西,而马云已接触到了这一能让无数中国人彼此建立联络的媒介,并对它的各种潜力惊叹不已。

另一个影响马云人生的际遇出现在他为中国对外贸易经济合作部工作期间。有一天,领导安排他带一位美国游客游览长城,此人便是雅虎联合创始人杨致远(Jerry Yang)。

阿里巴巴击败的第一个对手是eBay。eBay曾是中国电子商务市场的主宰,但当它把流量导向美国服务器时,它的发展开始停滞不前,业绩增长因此放缓。用户成批成批地弃eBay而去,对此,马云打趣说:“eBay可能是条海里的鲨鱼,可我是扬子江里的鳄鱼,如果我们在海里交战,我便输了,可如果我们在江里交战,我稳赢。”

目前,淘宝在C2C电子商务市场的份额保持在80%至90%之间。

由于马云与杨致远私交不错,雅虎以10亿美元购入了阿里巴巴40%的股份,并把雅虎中国(Yahoo! China)交给马云管理。不过,马云很快就开始抱怨卖给雅虎的股份太多了,然后试着说服雅虎同意让他回购部分股份。

由于两家公司之间关系紧张,马云在2011年把在线支付业务支付宝的所有权转至他个人控制的一家公司名下,并表示这么做是迫不得已,是为了规避政府的限制。此事也让雅虎明白了一点,即马云想做什么都行。

面对这种可能损害其投资的强硬做法,雅虎终于同意以71亿美元的价格将其所持阿里巴巴股份的一半卖回给后者。

中国电商市场的竞争是如此的激烈,以至于最小的失误都能导致持久的后果。淘宝在收获了假货盛行的名声后,不得不迅速采取行动,化解卖家售假引发的担忧。该公司的对策是与卖家展开接触,结果,有些卖家开始考虑与淘宝对手网站合作的可能性。

马云对中国政府高压政策的不加批判的支持引起了非议。比如,马云接手雅虎中国之前,雅虎做出了向中国政府移交私人电邮信息的决定,导致至少两名中国记者和倡导民主的人士以煽动颠覆国家政权罪被判入狱。马云当时说:“我们为股东创造价值,股东不希望我们与政府作对,走上破产之路。无论(政府官员)说什么,我们都会配合。”

2013年7月,马云再度引发了争议。他在接受《南华早报》(SCMP)采访时,据报道曾把1989年中国当局对天安门广场抗议者实施的镇压称为当时“最正确的决定”。后来,马云说自己的话被断章取义了,其中存在“严重误解”,尽管《南华早报》坚称自己的报道没有问题。

马云是阿里巴巴最伟大的天才,但有时候,他似乎又是其最沉重的负担。不过,对阿里巴巴的投资者而言,该公司的持久成功离不开马云。淘宝花店店主李思源(音译)说:“马云是有些疯狂。”李思源在自己位于北京的公寓里上网卖花,他的书架上摆了一本马云语录集。

“不过,要不是他,我现在也不会有自己的生意。”

译者/何黎

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