Walmart’s future in China increasingly depends on a single Chinese company

Eggs in a new basket.
Eggs in a new basket.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-hoon
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In China, Walmart is not only betting on e-commerce, it’s betting on a top Chinese e-commerce giant.

The US retail giant announced on May 25  that it will open a store on JD.com, one of China’s most popular e-commerce sites, second only to Alibaba. It’s the latest move in a new strategy for the company that has consistently brought it closer to JD, which now has the power to make—or break—the company’s future in China.

According to Walmart, the online store will carry over 1,700 of Walmart’s most-purchased items from its brick-and-mortar stores in China. Customers that order items before 11:00am can receive their packages on that same day. The orders will be fulfilled using JD’s in-house logistics infrastructure of warehouses, deliverymen, and drones.

Walmart sold its e-commerce operations to JD in June 2016 after a joint-venture with Yihaodian, a marginal player in China’s online shopping industry, proved unsuccessful. In exchange for the purchase, Walmart took a 5% stake in JD.

Since then, the two companies have moved quickly to boost Walmart’s online presence. In October 2016 JD launched an online store for Sam’s Club, as well as a store that sold only imported goods from Walmart overseas. That same month, Walmart announced it had invested $50 million in New Dada, a joint venture between JD and logistics network Dada. In April 2017 it launched an online store for Asda, Walmart’s UK subsidiary, selling British-branded products.

Meanwhile, Walmart has steadily increased its stake in JD–from 5%  in June 2016, to 10.8% in October, and then 12.1% this past February.

Walmart’s bet on e-commerce in China, assisted by JD, comes as its traditional offline retail business there continues to struggle. The company does not regularly disclose financial details about its China business, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest it is not going great. In 2014 a joint-venture partner revealed that same-store sales across 21 outlets dropped 6 percent between 2014 and 2015. It has also slowed the rate (paywall) of its new store openings in China.

One of the factors causing Walmart’s middling success in China has been the country’s quick embrace of e-commerce. According to Nielsen, 11% of total retail sales in China come from e-commerce, compared to 8% in the US. And e-commerce sales in China are growing at a rate of 53% annually, compared to roughly 12% in the US. Meanwhile, Chinese consumers are opting to make small purchases either online or in convenience stores, rather than in hypermarkets, according to another Nielsen study. The average shopping basket value for Chinese hypermarket shoppers fell 172.4 yuan (about $25) in 2014 to 162.7 (about $23) yuan in 2015.

This and other factors have led other overseas retailers to revamp their China strategies, or withdraw altogether. Carrefour, another hypermarket chain in the style of Walmart, suffered a net loss of €58 million (about $65 million) in China during 2016. The company recently started opening smaller outlets modeled after convenience stores. Tesco, from the UK, distanced itself from China when it sold its stores there to domestic retailer China Resources Enterprises in late 2013. And last October, bourgie expats gasped when Marks & Spencer announced it would close its 10 stores in China, citing continued losses.

By relying on JD to manage its e-commerce operations, Walmart is placing its future in China in the hands of another company, and betting on JD’s success to boost its own. That could turn out all right for Walmart.

JD, a major competitor to Alibaba, has long differentiated by promising faster deliveries than its rival, thanks to its in-house logistics network. Its market share in business-to-consumer e-commerce (as opposed to “marketplace style” e-commerce, where third-party vendors do the selling) has risen in the past few years, from 18.6% to 24.7%. The company just turned its first-ever operating profit since it listed in New York in 2014, and is investing hugely in drones to make delivery more efficient.

Both JD and Alibaba have lately turned to groceries and household items as drivers for growth, hoping that repeat purchases will drive up “gross merchandise value,” a metric investors look at to assess the sales value of all purchases (though it’s not the same as revenue). That competitive pressure might squeeze JD’s margins from selling Walmart products online. Given all the headaches Walmart has endured in China in the past—food safety scandals, fickle consumer behavior, and accounting fudges—it might be nice to offload parts of the company’s future to someone else.