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Amid Coronavirus, Has an Advantage Over Rivals

By Billy Duberstein - Mar 23, 2020 at 7:45AM

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Once viewed as a costly drawback,’s business model now seems like it was right all along.

As the coronavirus ravages the U.S., investors may wish to look across the Pacific for new investments. While the U.S. cases have continued to climb, China has actually reported no new "native" cases in the country for each of the past four days. While China is still seeing new cases, none are from Wuhan or Hubei, the epicenter of the crisis, and all reported new cases have been imported from overseas.

One stock investors may want to consider is Chinese e-commerce company (JD 2.69%). Obviously, with many Chinese citizens still wary of going out and about among crowds, and with the long-term trends pointing to continued e-commerce growth in China and elsewhere, e-commerce companies seem poised to both weather the current storm and come out the other side even stronger.

However, within that sector, there's an additional reason as to why JD is even better positioned than rivals.

A JD delivery courier in a mask untethers boxes for delivery on the street.

JD's business model is superior in the time of coronavirus. Image source:

Asset-light may not be the right move

Investors should understand how differs from larger rival Alibaba (BABA 2.04%) and upstart challenger Pinduoduo (PDD 4.89%). First, Alibaba is the oldest and largest of the Chinese e-commerce platforms and has traditionally employed an "asset-light" strategy, by which it collects commissions on items sold through its platforms as well as advertising revenue. Pinduoduo has a similar business model, though with a unique twist that allows buyers to "team" up for bulk buying, with items often shipping directly from the manufacturer. Both elements further lower costs to the end consumer. In addition to not taking control of inventory, both Alibaba and Pinduoduo outsource their delivery to third parties.

Alibaba has a majority investment in Cainiao, which is its delivery logistics subsidiary, but Cainiao doesn't employ delivery persons directly. Rather, Cainiao is more of an information hub that connects disparate delivery services, warehouses, and distribution centers. In addition, Alibaba has minority investments in two large couriers, ZTO Express (ZTO -2.99%) and YTO Express (SEHK:6123). Pinduoduo also depends on third parties such as these other couriers, including China's official national postal service. Last year, Pinduoduo made up nearly 30% of all packages delivered through the national service.

JD owns it all

This is in contrast to JD, which decided early on to build out its own logistics network across the country and also employ all of its own delivery personnel in-house. Last quarter, JD's owned warehouse space expanded to 16.9 million square meters. JD also initially focused on high-quality merchandise from large and medium-sized businesses, and has pushed into more general merchandise in recent years, including fresh groceries.

That business model is much more expensive and capital-intensive than those employed by Alibaba and Pinduoduo, even once spurring Alibaba founder Jack Ma to say that JD's business would "end in tragedy." However, JD's business model is looking awfully good right now. By owning all of its logistics personnel and warehouse space, JD can better control safety protocols for employees and spin up operations faster than rivals once the downturn recedes.

The control it exerts over its platform can also better ensure speedy delivery times and cut out counterfeit goods, which have been known to be a problem for JD's rivals. That kind of trust is sure to win over more of the Chinese population, who may be wary of potential tampered goods and uncertain delivery controls and times, especially in the age of coronavirus.

On the recent fourth-quarter conference call with analysts, JD management pointed its increasing net promoter scores, as well as accelerating customer growth -- even in the quarter prior to the outbreak. That bodes well for JD's competitive future. Management also touted JD's unique position to deliver necessities such as consumer staples and fresh groceries during this uncertain period.

Thanks to our use of investments in our self-operated proprietary supply chain and logistics network, was able to resume full operations very quickly after the Chinese New Year, and has been in a unique position to provide broad product selection and uninterrupted timely service to our customers in most parts of the country, as people turned to e-commerce for daily groceries and other necessities ... the consumer staple categories, such as groceries, fresh produce, healthcare and household products are in greater online demand during the past five weeks and was among the few companies and in many cases, the only major platform that could fulfill the orders. 

Of particular interest during this time may be JD's joint venture with Walmart (WMT 0.86%) called Dada-JD Daojia, designed to give lower-tier rural cities grocery delivery in two hours or less. Also, JD has expanded offerings to lower-tier cities through its Pinduoduo challenger and social-buying site Jingxi, which management said had processed about 1 million orders per day prior to the outbreak.

With a focus on technology, its own controlled logistics network, and in-house employees that it can train, JD's quality above-all-else philosophy is highly likely to win over more customers going forward. That's probably why, despite the shutting down of large swaths of China in the current quarter, management still projects year-over-year revenue growth of over 10%.

In the long run, quality wins out

Though JD's heavy investments in logistics, employees, warehouses, and technology have come at a steep price in the past, the long-term strategic benefit of those investments is coming to the fore right now. That's why JD appears poised to take more market share in China's e-commerce industry as China comes out of the coronavirus slowdown, and likely for the long term as well.

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Stocks Mentioned, Inc. Stock Quote, Inc.
$65.95 (2.69%) $1.73
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Stock Quote
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
$122.63 (0.86%) $1.05
Alibaba Group Holding Limited Stock Quote
Alibaba Group Holding Limited
$116.00 (2.04%) $2.32
ZTO Express (Cayman) Inc. Stock Quote
ZTO Express (Cayman) Inc.
$26.63 (-2.99%) $0.82
Pinduoduo Stock Quote
$64.82 (4.89%) $3.02

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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