China's e-commerce market is the largest in the world by far. With an expected 16% growth this year, online sales will reach a whopping $2.1 trillion and account for more than half of all e-commerce sales globally. This is an exciting growth story for investors, especially with China's middle class expected to grow to be 630 million people by 2022 and account for $3.4 trillion in annual spending. Let's take a deeper look at two of the leading e-commerce operators in the region to see which one is the better investment today.

A look at key metrics side-by-side

JD.com (NASDAQ:JD) and Alibaba (NYSE:BABA) operate in China as e-commerce businesses, but the way they make money is considerably different. JD.com acts as an online retailer that buys products from over 24,000 suppliers and sells these goods on its platform. Eighty-nine percent of its revenue comes from product sales, two-thirds of which is from electronics and home appliances. It also has a third party business that supports 270,000 merchants.

Metric

JD.com

Alibaba

TTM revenues ($B)

$82

$78

Gross merchandise value sold last fiscal year

$300 billion

Over $1 trillion

TTM gross margin

15%

44%

TTM net income % of revenue

2%

32%

MRQ revenue growth

34%

34%

3-year CAGR

30%

48%

Cash and marketable securities ($B)

$9

$51

Debt ($B)

$2

$18

TTM operating cash flow ($B)

$4

$28

Note: Bold indicates the "better" result between the two companies. Figures above in US$ were converted from RMB data at a rate of $1:7.065 RMB. TTM = trailing-12-months. MRQ = most recent quarter. CAGR = compound annual growth rate. Data source: Yahoo Finance. Table by author.

Eighty-seven percent of Alibaba's revenue comes from fees for its eBay-like marketplace and merchant services, such as logistics and advertising for its "tens of millions of merchants." Alibaba's platform provides it better margins and operating cash flows than JD.com's. But its low-margin business is impressively operating at a profit and has minimal debt, despite considerable investments in its logistics infrastructure over the past few years.

Let's look at the case for each.

The case for JD.com

The scale and scope of JD.com's fulfillment network are impressive. It operates over 750 warehouses across China and employs more than 130,000 delivery personnel that have enabled it to meet a surge of e-commerce activity due to the coronavirus. Revenue growth accelerated this quarter to 34% revenue year-over-year top-line gains, a substantial increase from its 21% growth in Q1, and the 23% growth from Q2 last year. These gains were powered by a 140% increase in its supermarket product orders, as groceries became the top-selling category for the first half of the year.

Active customers placing at least one order in the last 12 months grew 30% year over year to 417 million, which was JD.com's highest growth rate in the last 11 months. Because of the reach of its fulfillment network, over 80% of these new customers came from lower-tier (more rural) cites across the region.

The impressive top-line growth numbers helped scale operational costs and resulted in impressive gains in income from operations (up 122%). This quarter's solid results are the culmination of years of investments into its fulfillment network. Looking ahead, investors can expect more of the same. The company will continue to invest in its infrastructure, grow, and gain additional scale.

China flag on keyboard right next to key with e-commerce shopping cart.

Image source: Getty Images.

The case for Alibaba

The size and profitability of Alibaba's business are impressive. Last quarter it counted 742 million annual active customers (up 10% from the previous year) and had 874 million mobile visitors to its site (up 16% year over year). It's core e-commerce business hit $18.9 billion in its most recent quarter, up 34% year over year. Net income from operations for its online marketplace business was $6.4 billion for the quarter, offsetting $250 million in losses from its fast-growing Alibaba cloud business (69% year-over-year revenue growth) and a $1.2 billion loss from its digital entertainment and other initiatives. Overall income from operations increased 42% year over year to $4.9 billion. Cash flows from operations hit $7.1 billion, a gain of 45% over the previous Q2.

The company has an incredible cash hoard that it's using to expand into Southeast Asia, grow its logistics and international import business, and continue to drive the in-country expansion of its core e-commerce business. Alibaba is the largest e-commerce platform in the world and will naturally attract additional brands, get more online shoppers, and add more sales to its already massive platform. This incredible scale combined with solid profits enables the company tremendous flexibility to experiment with new ways to capture even more customers in the world's largest e-commerce marketplace.

The bottom line for investors

Although both companies posted 34% year-over-year revenue growth in the most recent quarter, the businesses are in very different positions in their life cycles. JD.com's growth is accelerating and it's becoming more profitable as it scales its investments in its infrastructure.

Alibaba's size is catching up with it, and even with coronavirus tailwinds, its core e-commerce business growth is slowing. Its cloud and digital entertainment businesses are growing faster than the overall rate, but remain unprofitable. Its up-and-coming logistics business and e-commerce presence in Southeast Asia will continue to require significant investments to grow beyond their single-digit percentages of the top line, which will put a drag on profits. 

JD.com has a well-established infrastructure and momentum to better capitalize on the growing e-commerce market in the region. Even with all that, its 35 price-to-earnings ratio is only slightly more pricey than Alibaba's 29 figure. JD.com is the better buy today.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.