Alibaba’s biggest e-commerce challenger in China, e-tailer JD.com has steadily been taking market share from its behemoth rival’s Tmall platform and has a growth rate that’s outpacing that of China’s e-commerce market. Already the fourth-largest tech company in China, JD.com is gaining ground on the “BAT” trifecta of the country’s top three giants: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.
A portion of JD.com’s business is similar to the Tmall marketplace model with brand-operated e-flagships, but it also features JD.com-run shops that ship goods from the company’s own warehouses. This is comparable to what Amazon does, but with a huge difference—the company also takes care of all of its own delivery logistics (think Amazon, but if it owned UPS).
JD.com is using its total control over its delivery network to branch out from its mass-market roots into China’s booming luxury e-commerce market. In June, it unveiled a luxury white-glove delivery service and launched a partnership with Farfetch not long after, announcing that it will be handling all of the luxury e-tailer’s China deliveries. Since the announcement, Saint Laurent has come on board with Farfetch in China and will offer same-day delivery in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong via JD.com logistics. The fashion label also plans to introduce to China the 90-minute delivery option that Gucci launched with Farfetch in 10 cities across the world.
The company has also been investing big in omnichannel. Nearly two years before Amazon acquired Whole Foods in the United States, JD.com bought a stake in Chinese grocery chain Yonghui and offers a two-hour delivery service. It also recently expanded its cooperation with Walmart and will kick off a JD.com/Walmart co-branded omnichannel shopping festival on August 8, which will allow users to receive discounts on JD.com orders with coupons they acquire through in-store QR codes.
The company also created an Amazon Echo-like speaker as it experiments with new technologies. It opened a center for research and development in Silicon Valley in 2015, where it’s working on projects such as robotics, cloud computing, and big data.
For more details on JD.com’s recent initiatives, we talked to JD.com Vice President of International Corporate Affairs Josh Gartner and International Director of Communications Lori Chao.
With the new Farfetch deal, is there a plan to sell Farfetch products on JD.com in the future?
Josh Gartner: Right now it’s definitely going to be standalone. It’s to support their China business as a separate site. Things could always change in the future but that’s the current plan.
Gucci has 90-minute delivery through Farfetch in 10 cities globally. Is there any plan for JD.com to offer this with Gucci or any other brands in China on Farfetch?
JG: Because we have a close relationship with Farfetch and they have close relationships with these brands, we’re definitely going to be in conversations with the brands. For Chow Tai Fook, the white-glove delivery was an important piece for them. I don’t know if that was the point that specifically sold them, but it made them very comfortable with our offer.
What is more difficult and what is easier about managing delivery logistics in China compared to doing so in the United States or Europe?
Lori Chao: The reason why we do logistics is because of how difficult things were years ago when we first started. There was no national carrier that had consistent service in every city. You had to basically piece your network together using local services—and there were dozens and dozens of them. We couldn’t guarantee good service, and that was a difficult thing to manage.
So, what we did was we made a major effort to essentially hire our own delivery people. Now we have over 60,000 of them, so that makes it a lot easier for us than for other e-commerce companies. For example, when you do white glove, you can roll it out fairly quickly. You can conceptualize and execute it very easily, whereas if we were working with a third-party provider, we would have to negotiate with every single partner and then try to convince them that we need this level of service.
In terms of what we’ve achieved with the logistics network and how far it reaches, I actually think we can do things a lot more easily than e-commerce companies can in North America.
How complicated is it to manage logistics for cross-border e-commerce with China’s cross-border e-commerce zones? Is it all marketplace sellers?
JG: You can do first-party or marketplace. Some of these really large brands are actually doing a combination. The brands that are going to have higher volume may do first-party. Sometimes they’ll move from marketplace to first-party for specific products, and take an additional step and move it into our main platform.
We have a lot of logistics partners—it will be a little bit different for different markets, but DHL is one, Australia Post is one, Yamato is one, and we have others. Once products get into the bonded warehouse, then we take it over. Depending on where you are in the country, we can do it extremely quickly. Bonded warehouses are in only a few cities.
LC: Speaking of where our warehouses are, that is probably going forward one of the bigger challenges as e-commerce grows, because it’s a bigger portion of retail in China now already than the US. We’re going to need more capacity. Because we deliver so quickly, our warehouses have to be very close to city centers, which means there’s limited space. That’s one of the challenges that we’re addressing with robotics and advanced technologies so there can be a more efficient use of space and labor.
Is JD.com more interested right now in cultivating partnerships for brand-operated flagships or JD.com-operated storefronts with luxury brands?
JG: For luxury products, generally speaking, it tends to be the marketplace model.
LC: There isn’t a hard and fast rule that we want to focus on one or the other. It just depends on what makes most sense for the brands. Over the extreme long-term it will probably skew more toward marketplace, because as we expand out into more areas and a higher number of SKUs, it will just make more sense to have a lot of those SKUs be handled by third-party sellers.
JG: There’s a pretty wide range of what we can do—you can have the brand just using JD purely as a platform; you can have them using it as a platform and then using our logistics out of their own warehouses; we can use it as a platform out of our warehouses, which will have the best experience compared to those other two because we can get it to them same day, next day, or you can have us do the whole thing as a pure retailer.
JD.com and other e-tailers have adopted livestreaming—has this had any direct impact on sales so far?
JG: For the big sales we’ve been able to do it, but it’s a little bit hard to separate out the numbers—the sales are going to have big figures anyway. It’s hard to pull out if we were getting additional sales beyond what we have already gotten. But it certainly attracts attention.
How important is omnichannel to JD’s future business and what new developments are planned?
JG: There’s a lot of stuff that we’re experimenting with in omnichannel. The possibility of having showrooms in physical stores, or having brands experiment with the model are all things we are looking at. Being able to order online and picking up, or vice-versa also hold good potential.
LC: The belief of our management is that physical stores will always be part of the shopping experience, to a different degree in every category, of course.