Alibaba needs help to build a market in the West and is openly courting cooperation with Apple and PayPal, suggesting sweeping e-commerce alliances and even acquisitions may soon follow.
"Collaboration and coopetition will precede any rollup," said Richard Crone, a payments consultant, adding the partnerships among or between the companies can broaden payments markets in anticipation of a deeper relationship, such as a merger or acquisition.
Joseph Tsai, Alibaba's Vice Chairman, said the company is working on collaborations with both Apple and PayPal. Tsai did not elaborate in an interview with Bloomberg, and Alibaba and PayPal did not return requests for comment.
Apple CEO Tim Cook is also open to working with Alibaba. PayPal, which is in the process of splitting from eBay, has not taken a firm stance on where its independence will place it in the competitive landscape.
For Alibaba, which has a corporate affiliation with Alipaya Chinese company similar to PayPalplaying nice with Apple and PayPal makes sense, analysts say.
"Alipay is growing rapidly, but it has about 18 million users," Crone said. "That's impressive, but PayPal has more than 150 million active users worldwide, as well as the clearing and settlement structure for local and international currencies around the world."
Alibaba is fast attracting U.S. merchants to an e-commerce service aimed at Chinese consumers, but that move only increases Alipay's share of its own market. It will need powerful partners to broaden relationships with the new merchants that it signs up in the U.S. and other Western markets.
"From Alibaba's perspective, they are increasing gross merchandising volume, and to do that they need to be in more markets," Crone said. "A relationship with PayPal would bring them huge upside in dealing with the cross border requirements for payments outside of China."
There is also an incentive for PayPal, Crone said, adding PayPal could benefit from expanding a discount technique Alibaba deploys in its home market. Alibaba made a big splash this week with record e-commerce activity tied to "Singles Day," a Chinese marketing-driven sales holiday that's part a rebellion against Valentine's Day and part Black Friday.
As part of its Singles Day strategy, Alibaba uses a "pre-sale" offering in which merchants advertise discounts several weeks in advance. Tmall, another Alibaba e-commerce affiliate, enables consumers to put down a deposit for an order, but allows merchants to process the payment only on Singles Day, which this year was Nov. 11. The promotion also encourages consumers to add money to their Alipay accounts, providing an alternative to bank processing, a goal Alipay has in common with PayPal. The Alibaba model encompasses inventory management and other merchant services, which PayPal would find attractive as part of a collaboration.
While some merchants in China have complained about the discount initiative's impact on their margins, it has resulted in huge sales. This year Alibaba sold about $7.5 billion of goods in less than a day after the promotion's launch.
"It's really a kind of loyalty program, and it cuts down on shopping and gives suppliers full review of the demand which helps supply chains," Crone said.
eBay's plans to split off PayPal quickly fed speculation that Alibaba would scoop up the independent unit, because the spinoff is partly designed to make PayPal more nimble in responding to market conditions. Alibaba's cooperative public posture, combined with geographic challenges both companies face in expanding into each other's markets, means the timeframes for such a deal may accelerate, Crone said.
"They may not wait for the spinoff to do a deal," Crone said. "If they can add another payment type, eliminate cross-border friction and open up new markets, both companies would benefit."
A deal with PayPal would also help Alibaba broaden share in its home market, said Thad Peterson, a senior analyst at Aite Group.
"Opening up Alibaba to PayPal adds another sales channel and revenue source, particularly in the sense of non-Chinese residents buying for family and friends in China," Peterson said. "Until Alipay has a significant and low-friction payment platform in the U.S., Alipay can generate sales by leveraging other popular payment vehicles."
The companies also need to respond to accelerating global retail markets provided by cross-border online purchases, Peterson said. "We've been talking for a long time about a global economy and it's starting to appear that a global retail market is emerging as a consequence of more open trade among countries," he said.