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[Exclusive] E-commerce

Coupang to start first overseas operation in Singapore

Apr 12, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

Coupang CEO Kim Bom-suk in front of the NYSE Building in March 2021 (Courtesy of Coupang)
Coupang CEO Kim Bom-suk in front of the NYSE Building in March 2021 (Courtesy of Coupang)

South Korea’s e-commerce giant Coupang Corp. is moving forward with its global expansion plans by entering the Singapore market. The New York Stock Exchange-listed company’s new start in Singapore marks its first overseas entry in its 11 years of operation.

According to banking and e-commerce sources on Apr. 12, Coupang is currently conducting an open recruitment for three top-level executives, namely the Head of Operations, the Head of Logistics and the Head of Retail, for its Singapore entity,

The company since last month has been recruiting hundreds of employees in Singapore, from entry level to executive positions across various functions including logistics, marketing, sales, payment, artificial intelligence and product sourcing.  

“Coupang has been making preparations to enter the Southeast Asian market from as early as last year,” said an e-commerce official in Singapore.

The island of Singapore on its own, with a population of only 5.9 million, is not considered a big market for e-commerce.

But at the same time, it acts as a springboard as well as a test-bed for global companies that want to win the larger Southeast Asian market that populates around 650 million people.

The total annual transaction in Southeast Asian e-commerce market, according to the e-Conomy SEA 2020 report co-published by Google, Temasek and Bain & Company, reached $62 billion last year, up 63% from 2019.

The report projected that the market will expand to $172 billion by 2025.

Industry analysts say that Coupang could fast forward its Southeast Asia entry plans thanks to its successful US IPO, which has procured around $4.2 billion to the company.

E-commerce insiders say that Coupang picked Singapore as its first overseas market as the island city will provide a perfect test-bed for Coupang’s digital logistics business optimized for densely populated areas.

Singapore’s e-commerce market is led by a local company, Shopee Pte Ltd., followed by China’s Alibaba. Coupang has been seeking ways to enter Singapore since last July when it acquired the country’s video streaming service provider Hooq Digital Ltd.

“Coupang’s Singapore entry will mark the first step in the company’s grand plan to take over the Asian e-commerce market based on its success model developed in Korea,” said an industry source.

Coupang acquired Singapore's Hooq in July 2020 (Courtesy of Hooq)
Coupang acquired Singapore's Hooq in July 2020 (Courtesy of Hooq)

COMPETITION WITH GLOBAL E-COMMERCE HEAVYWEIGHTS

The company’s founder and CEO Kim Bom-suk said in February at the first post-IPO press conference with New York reporters that the primary motive for listing his company in the US was to “compete against Amazon and Alibaba.”

Coupang’s entry to Singapore is interpreted by the industry as an announcement to kickstart Kim’s international-scale race against the American and Chinese e-commerce heavyweights.

China’s Alibaba Group already holds a strong presence in Singapore and the wider Southeast Asia. The group in 2016 acquired Southeast Asia’s largest e-commerce company, Lazada Group, and targets to grab 300 million users by 2030.

The analysts say that Coupang’s collision with Alibaba is inevitable in Southeast Asia including Singapore. Alibaba’s Lazada ranks second among the “big three” e-commerce companies in Singapore in terms of monthly transactions.

As of the second quarter last year, Sea Ltd.’s Shopee ranks first in the country with a monthly average trade of 10.9 million transactions, followed by Lazada with 8.5 million and Qoo10 with 7.5 million.

Qoo10 is a Southeast Asian company established in 2010 as a joint venture between eBay and South Korea’s Gmarket founder Ku Young-bae. Ku is Qoo10’s current chairman and CEO.

The big three companies all have their Southeast Asia regional offices in Singapore and operate in major countries in the region including Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Coupang believes that its strength in digital logistics, represented in Korea by its same-day “Rocket Delivery” service, will give it an upper hand in the densely populated island city.

Coupang was able to launch the same-day delivery service by setting up a comprehensive, digital-oriented logistics system and distribution centers located close to the country’s metropolitan areas.

The industry projects that Coupang will be able to build a similar logistics system in Singapore.

“The global investors placed a large sum of money in Coupang as they highly recognized its logistics system, developed in-house, that is optimized for operation in densely populated areas like the large cities in Asia,” said an analyst at a global investment banking firm.

“Singapore is the perfect test-bed for Coupang’s long-term vision in future mobility including a fully autonomous delivery system,” added the analyst.

The same-day or next-morning delivery service, which has become common in the Korean e-commerce market, is not yet prevalent in Singapore.

According to Shopee, the country’s top player, a typical delivery takes one to three business days for food and groceries. Items that are ordered from overseas vendors take at least a week and even up to a month for delivery, according to local sources.

CURRENT APPROACH & FUTURE PROSPECTS

Coupang’s recent focus to write a new success story on the global stage is widening its network of global vendors. To this end, the company held its first conference for the Chinese sellers in Shenzhen, China last September.

Coupang's conference for Chinese sellers in September 2020 (Courtesy of Coupang)
Coupang's conference for Chinese sellers in September 2020 (Courtesy of Coupang)

Moreover, Coupang since 2017 has been operating a special delivery service in Korea that allows a three-day delivery of overseas products to local users.

The service, which was limited to around 80,000 items shipped from the US, has been expanded to include products from China due to the expansion of the vendor network.

The e-commerce industry expects that the millions of items that Coupang is selling locally in Korea will be another of its competitive edge over the global competitors based outside Korea.  

“Singapore imports most of its industrial products, as the country lacks its own manufacturing infrastructure. It is thus necessary to have a wide supply chain of overseas vendors to be successful in Southeast Asia,” said an e-commerce source in Singapore.

Sources say that Coupang’s earlier-than-expected global expansion has largely to do with its tremendous IPO success in the US. Coupang’s market capitalization has become around $80 billion after its listing.

Industry experts also highlight that the company’s cash flow has turned positive last year, thanks to a big reduction in fixed costs. Its distribution centers, which soaked up hundreds of millions of dollars of investment every year since 2012, are gradually making a positive turnaround.

While Coupang posted a net operating loss last year, the loss was largely due to the increased spending of around 300 billion won ($267 million) on pandemic-related disinfection measures.

The company has reported a 93% annual increase in revenues in 2020, and its first quarter earnings this year are estimated to be higher than that of the same period last year.

“Coupang follows Amazon in that it uses most of its profit as seed money for future growth. The company seems to be pushing forward domestic investment and overseas expansion at the same time,” said a source familiar with Coupang’s long-term plans.

Write to Dong-Hui Park and Tae-Ho Lee at donghuip@hankyung.com

Daniel Cho edited this article.

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