China’s grocery delivery battle heats up with Meituan’s entry

Fast, affordable food delivery service has been life-changing for many working Chinese, but some still prefer to whip up their own meals. These people may not have the time to pick up fresh ingredients from brick-and-mortar stores, so China’s startups and large companies are trying to make home-cooked meals more effortless for busy workers by sending vegetables and meats to apartment doors.

The fresh grocery sector in China recorded 4.93 trillion yuan ($730 billion) in total sales last year, growing steadily from 3.37 trillion yuan in 2012 according to data collected by Euromonitor and Hua Chuang Securities. Most of these transactions still happen inside wet markets and supermarkets, leaving online retail, which accounted for only 3 percent of total grocery sales in 2016, much room for growth.

Ecommerce leaders Alibaba and JD.com have already added grocery to their comprehensive online shopping malls, nestling in the market with more focused players like Tencent-backed MissFresh (每日优鲜), which has raised $1.4 billion to date. The field has just grown a little more crowded with new entrant Meituan, the Tencent-backed food delivery and hotel booking giant that raised $4.2 billion through a Hong Kong listing last year.

meituan grocery

Screenshots of the Meituan Maicai app / Image: Meituan Maicai

The service, which comes in a new app called “Meituan Maicai” or Meituan grocery shopping that’s separate from the company’s all-in-one app, set out in Shanghai in January before it muscled into Beijing last week. The move follows Meituan’s announcement in its mid-2018 financial report to get in on grocery delivery.

Meituan’s solution to take grocery the last mile is not too different from those of its peers. Users pick from its 1,500 stock keeping units ranging from yogurt to pork loin, fill their in-app shopping carts and pay via their phones, the firm told TechCrunch. Meituan then dispatches its delivery fleets to people’s doors in as little as 30 minutes.

The instant delivery is made possible by a satellite of physical “service stations” across neighborhoods that serve warehousing, packaging and delivering purposes. Placing offline hubs alongside customers also allows data-driven internet firms to optimize warehouse stocking based on local user preferences. For instance, people from an upscale residential area probably eat and shop differently from those in other parts of the city.

Meituan’s foray into grocery shopping further intensifies its battle with Alibaba to control how Chinese people eat. Alibaba’s Hema Supermarket has been running on a similar setup that uses its neighborhood stores as warehouses and fulfillment centers to facilitate 30-minute delivery within a three-kilometer radius. For years, Meituan’s food delivery arm has been going neck-and-neck with Ele.me, which Alibaba scooped up last year. More recently, Alibaba and Meituan are racing to get restaurants to sign up for their proprietary software, which can supposedly give owners more insights into diners and beef up customer engagement.

As part of its goal to be an “everything” app, Meituan has tried out many new initiatives in the lead-up to its initial public offering but was also quick to put them on hold. The firm acquired bike-sharing service Mobike last April only to shutter its operations across Asia in less than a year for cost-saving. Meituan also paused expansion on its much-anticipated ride-hailing business.

But grocery delivery appears to be closer to Meituan’s heart, the “eating” business, to put in its own words. Meituan is tapping its existing infrastructure to get the job done, for example, by summoning its food delivery drivers to serve the grocery service during peak hours. As the company noted in its earnings report last year, the grocery segment could leverage its “massive user base and existing world’s largest intra-city on-demand delivery network.”

Alibaba and Amazon move over, we visited JD’s connected grocery store in China

China’s YY eyes overseas live streaming with $1.45B Bigo buyout

One of China’s top live streaming companies YY bought a stake and obtained the right to purchase a majority share in Bigo last June, and now the other shoe has dropped after YY fully acquired the Singapore-based startup behind live streaming app Bigo Live and short-video service Like.

That’s according to an announcement YY made on Monday, which disclosed it has bought out the remaining 68.3 percent of all the issued and outstanding shares of Bigo for a price tag of about $1.45 billion.

Bigo’s connection to YY is deep-rooted. Li Xueling, a veteran Chinese journalist who’s also known as David Li, founded YY in 2005 well before the heyday of mobile-based live streaming apps. With the intent to bring the China-tested business to overseas markets, Li started Bigo in 2016 to replicate YY’s lucrative revenue model where the platform operator takes a cut whenever viewers reward streamers with virtual gifts, which can be cashed out.

YY racked up $675 million in net revenues and a net income of around $100 million from the fourth quarter of 2018, its latest earnings report shows.

The Bigo buyout is set to be a huge boost to YY’s international ambitions as its home market has been divided up between YY itself, its spin-off Huya that focuses on esports streaming and Huya’s archrival Douyu. Curiously, both Douyu and Huya are backed by Tencent, the company best known for the WeChat messenger but is also China’s largest games publisher.

To bring the domestic rivalry into perspective, Nasdaq-listed YY recorded a monthly mobile user base of 90.4 million in the fourth quarter. Huya, which priced its U.S. initial public offering at $180 million last August, posted a monthly of 50.7 million users from the same period. Douyu hasn’t recently unveiled its size as the company is reportedly mulling to go public in the U.S., but third-party data analytics company QuestMobile put its MAU in December at 43 million.

“We are very excited to announce the completion of the acquisition of Bigo. It is an important milestone for YY group which demonstrated our confidence and commitment to the globalization strategy,” said Li of YY in a statement.

Huya and Douyu have also ventured beyond China for new growth with their respective overseas brands Nimo TV and Nonolive. In its Q4 earnings report, Huya singled out foreign markets as one area of focus in 2019 and its Nimo already enjoys having a powerful ally, Tencent, which signed an agreement last July to help it with gaming content and brand recognition.

nimo tv

Huya’s overseas brand Nimo TV

“In addition to our vigorous domestic growth, we have successfully leveraged our unique business model to enter new overseas markets,” said chief executive Dong Rongjie. “We believe we are delivering long-term value through strategic investments in overseas markets in 2019 and beyond.”

While anchoring in Southeast Asia, Bigo has debuted in over 100 countries worldwide and been in the top ten of Apple’s app store not just in neighboring countries like Vietnam and Cambodia but also in Paraguay, Yeman and Angola, according to data collected by app tracking service App Annie. Growth in India has been particularly strong this year as the country captured 32 percent of Bigo’s 11 million new Android users who downloaded the app via Google Play between January and February, according to data provided by SensorTower.

Li estimated in 2017 that Bigo was generating an annual revenue of $300 million at the time. Bigo claims 200 million registered users to date with MAUs reaching almost 37 million worldwide. Its popularity has, however, gone hand in hand with its reputation for hosting offensive content, but the startup has assured it deploys resources to closely screen content. Back in China, YY, Huya, Douyu and the likes are constantly grappling with the government’s tightening grip over online information, which puts the burden on media companies to keep a robust content monitoring team to not only rid illegal videos but also parse the country’s opaque definition of what’s considered “inappropriate”.

Update (March 5, 2019, 13:00pm): Added details on Bigo’s growth and Huya’s overseas expansion

It isn’t just apps. China’s cinemas broke records during Lunar New Year

China celebrated Lunar New Year last week as hundreds of millions of people travelled to their hometowns. While many had longed to see their separated loved ones, others dreaded the weeklong holiday as relatives awkwardly caught up with them with questions like: “Why are you not married? How much do you earn?”

Luckily, there are ways to survive the festive time in this digital age. Smartphone usage during this period has historically surged. Short video app TikTok’s China version Douyin noticeably took off by acquiring 42 million new users over the first week of last year’s holiday, a report from data analytics firm QuestMobile shows. Tencent’s mobile game blockbuster Honor of Kings similarly gained 76 percent DAUs during that time, according to another QuestMobile report.

People also hid away by immersing themselves in the cinema during the Lunar New Year, a movie-going period akin to the American holiday season. This year, China wrapped up the first six days of the New Year with a record-breaking 5.8 billion ($860 million) yuan box office, according to data collected by Maoyan, Alibaba’s movie ticketing service slated for an initial public offering.

The new benchmark, however, did not reflect an expanding viewership. Rather, it came from price hikes in movie tickets, market research firm EntGroup suggests. On the first day of Year of the Pig, tickets were sold at an average of 45 yuan ($6.65), up from 39 yuan last year. That certainly put some price-sensitive audience off — though not by a huge margin as there wasn’t much to do otherwise. (Shops were closed. Fireworks and firecrackers, which are traditionally set off during the New Year to drive bad spirits away, are also banned in most Chinese cities for safety concerns.) Cinemas across China sold 31.69 million tickets on the first day, a slight decline from last year’s 32.63 million.

Dawn of Chinese sci-fi

wandering earth 2

Image source: The Wandering Earth via Weibo

Many Chinese companies don’t return to work until this Thursday, so the box office results are still being announced. Investment bank Nomura put the estimated total at 6.2 billion yuan. What’s also noticeable about this year’s film-inspired holiday peak is the fervor that sci-fi The Wandering Earth whipped up.

American audiences may find in the Chinese film elements of Interstellar’s space adventures, but The Wandering Earth will likely resonate better with the Chinese audience. Adapted from the novel of Hugo Award-winning Chinese author Liu Cixin, the film tells the story of the human race seeking a new home as the aging sun is about to devour the earth. A group of Chinese astronauts, scientists and soldiers eventually work out a plan to postpone the apocalypse — a plot deemed to have stoke Chinese viewers’ sense of pride, though the rescue also involves participation from other nations.

The film, featuring convincing special effects, is also widely heralded as the dawn of Chinese-made sci-fi films. The sensation gave rise to a wave of patriotic online reviews like “If you are Chinese, go watch The Wandering Earth” though it’s unclear whether the discourse was genuine or have been manipulated.

Alibaba’s movie powerhouse

This record-smashing holiday has also been a big win for Alibaba, the Chinese internet outfit best known for ecommerce and increasingly cloud computing. Its content production segment Alibaba Pictures has backed five of the movies screened during the holiday, one of which being the blockbuster The Wandering Earth that also counts Tencent as an investor.

Tech giants with online streaming services are on course to upend China’s film and entertainment industry, a sector traditionally controlled by old-school production houses. In its most recent quarter, Alibaba increased its stake to take majority control in Alibaba Pictures, the film production business it acquired in 2014. Tencent and Baidu have also spent big bucks on content creation. While Tencent zooms in on video games and anime, Baidu’s Netflix-style video site iQiyi has received wide acclaim for house-produced dramas like Yanxi Palace, a smash hit drama about backstabbing concubines that was streamed over 15 billion times.

Seeing all the entertainment options on the table, the Chinese government made a pre-emptive move against the private players by introducing a news app designed for propaganda purposes in the weeks leading to the vacation.

“The timing of the publishing of this app might be linked to the upcoming Chinese New Year Festival, which the Chinese Communist Party sees as an opportunity and a necessity to spread their ideology,” Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of the research area on public policy and society of German think tank MERICS, told TechCrunch earlier. “[It] may be hoping that people would use the holiday season to take a closer look, but probably also knowing that most people would rather choose other sources to relax, consume and travel.”

The article has been updated to correct Kristin Shi-Kupfer’s title.

China’s WeChat is the latest to get Snap-like ‘Stories’

WeChat, the Chinese messaging giant with more than 1 billion monthly active users around the world, just added a Snap-like ephemeral video feature as part of its biggest overhaul since 2014.

The revamp comes as Tencent, which owns stakes in Snap, sees increasing rivalry from up-and-comers like video app TikTok and news app Jinri Toutiao. WeChat has, over the years, morphed beyond a straight-up messenger to include many utility purposes. With more than 1 million lightweight apps up and running, users can accomplish a long list of tasks, ranging from shopping to ride-hailing, without ever having to leave WeChat.

Meanwhile, some have expressed frustration over WeChat’s core as a social app. Moments, a feature akin to Facebook News Feed, was once a haven for close friends to share articles, photos and videos. But newsfeed content became blander over time as people’s contact list grew to include their bosses and their local fruit seller who needs to be added as a friend to process WeChat payments.

WeChat founder Allen Zhang is known for his obsession with user experience and has been cautious with tweaks, so a major redesign to the super app is effectively a guidebook for where WeChat is headed for the next few years.

The new off-the-cuff video feature, aptly named “Time Capsule,” is one of WeChat’s more noticeable updates. In the past, users shared videos to three main destinations: A friend, a group chat or Moments. This route remains unchanged, but with Time Capsule, users also can upload videos of up to 15 seconds that disappear after 24 hours, similar to how Snap Stories and its slew of clones, including Instagram Stories, work. Meanwhile, Snap also has drawn inspiration from Chinese apps in a recent redesign.

A blue ring will appear near the profile of those who have recorded an instant story. Screenshot by TechCrunch

Different from Instagram, which recently started allowing users to share Stories to close friends, WeChat doesn’t let users share Time Capsule videos to friends yet. Instead of lining up all the instant videos at the top of the app as Instagram does, WeChat is asking users to find them in less conspicuous ways: On Moments, in a group chat or in one’s starred friend list, a blue ring will appear near the profile of those who have recorded instant stories.

These secret entry points mean users are prompted to watch videos of those they know well, as they rarely click on the profile of, say, a fruit vendor.

Time Capsule is also a step up from WeChat’s old video sharing tool, with additional features such as locations and music, functions that are ubiquitous in TikTok and other short-form video apps. Users also can react to Time Capsule videos by blowing virtual “bubbles,” whereas the old video format doesn’t allow such interaction.

Time Capsule is a step up from WeChat’s old video sharing tool, with additional features such as locations and music. Screenshot by TechCrunch

While Time Capsule is not necessarily a direct challenger to TikTok — a product of the world’s most valuable startup ByteDance — it enriches the video experience for users who want to give close friends a window into their life. TikTok, by comparison, delivers content by relying on artificial intelligence to read users’ past habits rather than studying their social graphs.

That said, WeChat has shown signs to catch up with TikTok by rolling out a dozen video apps this year. While Tencent blocks TikTok videos from being shared to WeChat, its own proprietary video app Weishi gets preferential treatment. When users choose to record a video on WeChat, there’s an option to record it via Weishi. But Tencent’s short video fleet has a long way to go before they reach TikTok’s global dominance of 500 million monthly active users.

Another WeChat update also appears as a response to a popular ByteDance app. While WeChat users could show appreciation for an article by clicking on a “like” button, there was no effective way in the past to know what their friends enjoyed. The revamped WeChat now lets people see all the articles their friends have liked under one single stream called “Wow.”

That’s a feature that ByteDance’s Jinri Toutiao news app cannot rival, as Wow is built on billions of users who know each other, unlike Jinri Toutiao, which relies on AI personalization like its sibling TikTok. WeChat is already colossal and can never please every user, but its new move shows that it’s paying close attention to whoever that may steal its users’ eyeball time away.

Tencent returns to profit growth despite concern around games

Chinese internet giant Tencent bounced back from a disappointing previous quarter, but for once the company didn’t have its gaming business to thank.

Tencent may be best known for conjuring up WeChat, China’s most popular messaging platform, but its revenue is driven by its gaming business, which includes top smartphone titles and a thriving PC unit. Its Q3 results, announced today, however, saw its gaming income slacken and other units, including a booming advertising business, step up.

The firm posted a net profit of RMB 23.3 billion ($3.4 billion) on total revenue of RMB 80.6 billion ($11.7 billion), up 30 percent and 24 percent, respectively. Profit growth was back on track, mainly thanks to increased net gains from investments, including a blockbuster IPO of Meituan in September.

Advertising increased by 47 percent and generated 20 percent of total revenues, marking the first time that the segment has reached that mark. The jump is in part a result of strong ad revenue growth on Tencent’s two main chat apps, WeChat and QQ.

These changes are a sign that Tencent has begun to aggressively monetize its massive network of social networking users. As of September, Tencent had 1.08 billion monthly active users on WeChat worldwide, though the app’s spectacular growth has slowed to 2.3 percent quarter-to-quarter.

Tencent underwent an internal reorganization in October that saw it merge several business groups, which have resulted in a more unified system of advertising sales platforms, the company explained in today’s report.

“Our advertising, digital content, payment and cloud services sustained robust activity and revenue growth, and now account for the majority of our revenue,” chairman and CEO Pony Ma said in a statement.

In contrast, games, which have been Tencent’s major revenue driver for years, slid four percent this quarter due to a prolonged freeze on gaming licenses in China. The firm claims it has 15 games with monetization approval in its pipeline, which means that gaming revenues could rebound when it publishes those titles, although it said the same in the previous quarter, so a lack of progress is fairly ominous.

The firm also pointed out that while mobile games continued to fuel revenue growth, PC games suffered a decline.

When asked about the situation with gaming licenses on a call with investors, Tencent President Martin Lau said the company is “waiting for the government to start the approval process.”

Tencent appears to have found a potential interim solution, which involves allowing third-party publishers who secured a license before the freeze to publish games through its platform, but of course, that has limited use.

While games are the hot topic, Tencent was keen to push the story of its cloud computing business, which it said is a key to widening its focus into IOT and other areas.

Emboldened by the reorganization in October, which seemed aimed at shifting Tencent from a consumer-facing internet company into one that’s increasing serving industries, the firm said its cloud business more than doubled its revenue year-on-year. There was no raw revenue figure released for the quarter, but the company did disclose that the cloud unit has brought in more than RMB 6 billion, $860 million, over the last three quarters.

Furthermore, cloud computing and payment-related services helped its “Others” business increase its revenue 69 percent year-on-year to reach RMB 20.3 billion, $2.92 billion, for the quarter.

Tencent is launching its own version of Snap Spectacles

Some were surprised to see Snap release a second version of its “face-camera” Spectacles gadget, since the original version failed to convert hype into sales.

But those lackluster sales — which dropped to as low as 42,000 per quarter — didn’t only fail to dissuade the U.S. social firm from making more specs, because now Tencent, the Chinese internet giant and Snap investor, has launched its own take on the genre.

Tencent this week unveiled its answer to the video-recording sunglasses, which, you’ll notice, bear a striking resemblance to Snap’s Spectacles.

Called the Weishi smartglasses, Tencent’s wearable camera sports a lens in the front corner that allows users to film from a first-person perspective. Thankfully, the Chinese gaming and social giant has not made the mistake of Snap’s first-generation Spectacles, which highlighted the camera with a conspicuous yellow ring.

Tencent, which is best known for operating China’s massively popular WeChat messenger, has been an investor in Snap for some time after backing it long before it went public. But, when others have criticized the company and its share price struggled, Tencent doubled down. It snapped up an additional 12 percent stake one year ago and it is said to have offered counsel to Snap CEO Evan Spiegel on product strategy. We don’t know, however, if the two sides’ discussions have ever covered Spectacles and thus inspired this new Tencent take on then.

The purpose behind Tencent’s new gadget is implicit in its name. Weishi, which means “micro videos” in Chinese, is also the name of the short-video sharing app that Tencent has been aggressively promoting in recent months to catch up with market dominators TikTok and Kuaishou .

TikTok, known as Douyin in China, is part of the entertainment ecosystem that Beijing-based ByteDance is building. ByteDance also runs the popular Chinese news aggregator Toutiao and is poised to overtake Uber as the world’s most-valued tech startup when it closes its mega $3 billion funding round.

Weishi’s other potential rival Kuaishou is, interestingly, backed by Tencent. Kuaishou launched its own video-taking sunglasses in July.

Alongside the smart sunglasses, Tencent has also rolled out a GoPro-like action camera that links to the Weishi app. Time will tell whether the gadgets will catch on and get more people to post on Weishi.

Snap Spectacles V1 (top) and V2

The spectacles will go on sale November 11, a date that coincides with Singles Day, the annual shopping spree run by Tencent’s close rival Alibaba. Tencent does not make the gadget itself and instead has teamed up with Shenzhen-based Tonot, a manufacturer that claims to make “trendy” video-taking glasses. Tonot has also worked with Japan’s Line chat app on camera glasses.

“There isn’t really a demand for video-recording glasses,” says Mi Zou, a Beijing-based entrepreneur working on an AI selfie app. That’s because smartglasses are “not offering that much more to consumers than smartphones do,” she argues. Plus, a lot of people on apps like Douyin and Kuaishou love to take selfies, a need that smartglasses fail to fulfill.

“Tencent will have to work on its marketing. It could perhaps learn a few things from the Apple Watch, which successfully touts a geeky product as a fashionable accessory,” suggests Mi, who points out Snap Spectacles’ so-far dim reception.

Weishi had not responded to TechCrunch’s request for comment at the time of writing, but we’ll update this story with any additional information should the company provide it.

The incredible rise of Pinduoduo, China’s newest force in e-commerce

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on TechNode, an editorial partner of TechCrunch based in China.

From Alibaba to JD, China is not short of e-commerce powerhouses. Although the country’s e-commerce market is highly consolidated, it’s not impossible for startup teams to crack this market as long as they are solving the right problems for the right group of customers.

Chinese social e-commerce platform Pinduoduo just proved this. The Shanghai-based company just went public raising $1.6 billion through a U.S. IPO this week, which stands out as one of the largest deals of the year. Excitement is quickly intensifying surround the company, which claims 195 million monthly users and has managed to become successful within China’s highly competitive e-commerce market inside just three years.

What is Pinduoduo and what has it done right?

Like Alibaba’s Taobao and rival JD.com, Pinduoduo is an e-commerce platform that offers a wide range of products from daily groceries to home appliances. Pinduoduo’s twist lies in its integration of social components into the traditional online shopping process, which the company describes as the “team purchase” model.

By sharing Pinduoduo’s product information on social networks such as WeChat and QQ, users can invite their contacts to form a shopping team to get a lower price for their purchase. The mechanism keeps the users motivated and better hooked for a more interactive and dynamic shopping experience. Coupled with other incentives such as cash, coupon, lottery and free products, Pinduoduo manages to acquire users at a very low cost. Combined with the extra satisfaction of scoring a good deal with your friends as a team, Pinduoduo soon became a viral sensation in China.

Extremely low prices are another compelling attraction of Pinduoduo. The discount is usually up to 90 percent, including everything from RMB 10 ($1.50) bed sheets to RMB 1,000 ($150) PCs. But the bestsellers are daily items at unbelievable low prices. More than 6.4 million units of tissue paper were sold at RMB 12.9 ($1.90) for 10 boxes and 4.8 million umbrellas were purchased at RMB 10.3 ($1.51) apiece.

The company’s bulk-selling model easily creates huge orders for the sellers and leaves them more room to cut prices. At the same time, Pinduoduo’s app is designed to facilitate this, an expert explained to local media: “Alibaba Taobao’s interface is search-based and centered on multiple product displays, while Pinduoduo’s is more similar to a news feed and thus gives more exposure to a single product and easy to create “爆款” [baokuan, meaning viral items]. Taobao has more products listed, but Pinduoduo put its focus on fewer bestsellers that attract more buyers.”

Pinduoduo (l) and Taobao (r) interfaces

Pinduoduo’s C2B model allows it to ship directly from the manufacturers eliminates layers of distributors, not only reduces the price tag for buyers but also raises the profit of manufacturers. This approach is particularly effective for the sales of perishable agricultural and fresh products, where the speed for matching supply and demand is critical.

Lesser-known brands were chosen over famous brands to erase any premium that comes from branding. Additionally, the costs for advertising and marketing are also lowered through user sharing to social media. The approach is both cost-saving and effective. Through social sharing, users are sending the product information precisely to friends and groups that may have similar income and consumption preferences. Viral marketing is a more clever way to build the identity of all the lesser-known brands on its platform. Financially, the platform could even out part of discounts with less marketing budgets.

Price and social features are not only the only path to Pinduoduo’s meteoric rise, and spotting the right user profile is the last piece to the puzzle.

Operation director of Chinese mobile e-commerce platform Chuchujie, Yang Lin shot to the core of the problem in an interview with local media: “Taobao has over 500 million users while WeChat has over 1 billion, the gigantic missing group between two of China’s giant apps is distributed in third- or lower-tier cities, mostly senior citizens. This group, which only recently came online and depends on the ubiquitous WeChat as the chief source of information, is the target users of Pinduoduo.”

Data from research institute Jiguang shows that users from third- and lower-tier cities account for around 65 percent of Pinduoduo’s total user base, while JD’s users in first plus second-tier cities and the rest of China were half-and-half.  Additionally, females account for 70 percent of Pinduoduo’s user base. They are responsible for family purchases and more price sensitive. This guarantees more active sharing and purchases.

User demographics and average order value of JD, Taobao, and PDD (Image credit: GGV)

Consumption upgrade, a trend in which affluent Chinese customers are increasingly willing to pay for quality, has dominated China’s e-commerce industry in the past few years. Taobao and JD’s globalization initiatives to bring overseas quality products, the boom of cross-border e-commerce sites like Red and NetEase Yanxuan and Kaola are all based on the consumption-upgrading backdrop.

But the growth of Pinduoduo has sparked an argument focusing on whether the platform represents consumption downgrading. Maybe consumption upgrading or degrading isn’t the key problem. It is just one more piece of evidence for how big and segmented the Chinese market can be. Rising income may give part of Chinese urban citizens the freedom to vote for quality, but RMB 1 difference in price tag may be enough of an incentive for their countryside counterparts, who have been more neglected by e-commerce so far.

Cost performance is still the most important factor to consider for consumers. A higher price tag does not necessarily represent the better quality or vice versa. The huge potential in this often-overlooked market is luring more competitors. Taobao launched Taobao Tejia, a dedicated app for China’s low-end users.

Pinduoduo didn’t invent the social e-commerce model. Groupon pioneered the group-buying concept years ago. But it is succeeding thanks to a new ecosystem consisting of super app WeChat, mobile payment infrastructure, and mobile-first users.

Pinduoduo’s history and major milestones

Founded in September 2015, Pinduoduo is the fourth startup of Colin Huang, an ex-Googler who once worked on early search algorithms for e-commerce. His previous startups include consumer electronics e-commerce site Ouku.com, Leqi, e-commerce platform marketing agent service and a WeChat-based role-playing game company.

With experiences in both e-commerce and gaming, Huang founded Pinduoduo with a vision to combine the secret success recipe of both Alibaba and Tencent, the two Chinese internet giants known for their e-commerce and gaming /social dominance respectively. “They don’t really understand how the other makes money,” Huang said to Bloomberg.

Huang seems to be right about how the two industries can work together. Pinduoduo’s annual GMV (gross merchandise volume) surpassed RMB100 billion ($14.7 billion) in 2017, that’s around two years since its inception. To hit the same milestone, Taobao took five years, VIP.com took eight years and JD ten years. Pinduoduo now claims more than 343.6 million active buyers with an annual GMV of RMB 262.1 billion, or $38.5 billion.

A huge turning point occurred in the third quarter of 2017 when the weekly active rate, penetration rate, and open rate of the Pinduoduo app all surpassed those of JD. Compared to the previous year, it reaches up to 1,000 percent year on year growth according to data from Jiguang.

Image credit: GGV Capital

Steep growth trajectory lured financial backings. In 2015, Huang launched Pinhaohuo, a social commerce platform for fruits, with the team from his second startup Leqi. His gaming startup incubated Pinduoduo.

Four months after Pinduoduo received undisclosed A round from IDG and Lightspeed China in March 2016, the company secured over $110 million in Series B financing four months later from Baoyan Partners, New Horizon Capital, Tencent, and others. In April 2018, Pinduoduo completed a new round of financing raising $3 billion at a valuation of nearly $15 billion. Given Pinduoduo’s WeChat-based ecosystem, Tencent joined the round as a returning investor.

Given the history between Pinduoduo and Pinhaohuo, then of the two largest players in the social e-commerce sector, the two companies merged to form one dominator.

Another counterfeit heaven in China?

“If you close your eyes and visualize the next stage for Pinduoduo, it would be a combination of ‘Costco’ and ‘Disneyland’, driven by a distributed network of intelligence agents,” Huang wrote in the IPO prospectus. Huang’s comparison was thus interpreted as a combination of “value for money” and entertainment, but many are questioning whether or to what degree Pinduoduo can live up to the founder’s expectation.

Although Pinduoduo claims to have several channels to lower product prices, increasing product quality and counterfeit complaints still raise concerns for a possible low-cost and low-quality association. The percentage of complains on Pinduoduo is 17.87 percent, and the user satisfaction rating is only 1 star, according to the 2017 National User Satisfaction Survey of Major E-commerce Platforms released by the China E-Commerce Research Center. Complaints mainly target at the problems of poor quality, slow delivery, misleading ads, etc.

In addition to mounting domestic complaints, the Chinese shopping app was hit by a trademark infringement lawsuit in the US, shortly after filing for a US IPO. Alongside Alibaba and JD’s efforts to remove fake goods on their platforms, fake goods are flooding to emerging e-commerce platforms like Pinduoduo and Weishang, according to Alibaba.

As Pinduoduo gets into life as a public company, the firm is following the e-commerce giants in cleaning up the platform. According to the company’s annual consumer rights protection report for 2017, it has taken down 10.7 million problematic listings, blocked 40 million suspicious external links, representing 95 percent of the fake good sellers from the platform. The company set up an RMB 150 million ($22 million) fund to deal with after-sales disputes.

But tightening regulation is causing more friction between Pinduoduo and its merchants on the platform. In June, fourteen store owners who sell products on Pinduoduo protested under the company’s office building claiming that Pinduoduo conducted improper product-quality checks which damaged the owners’ rights. Company founder Huang insisted Pinduoduo’s decision and punishment of the owners is just and fair.

Many also questioned the validity of entertaining features in Pinduoduo’s value proposition. “We have observed that a few users find shopping on Pinduoduo to be very entertaining, which is attributable to its extremely low pricing and interaction among Weixin users,” according to research institute 86 Research.

IPO and beyond

Pinduoduo went public on NASDAQ market on July 26 and raised more than $1.6 billion with a valuation of $60 billion. However, shareholders should still be concerned about the company’s fundamentals

Financially, the company is still in the red. Pinduoduo suffered a net loss of RMB 292 million ($43 million) and RMB 525.1 million ($77 million) in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Its net losses reached RMB 201 million ($30 million) in the first quarter of this year. The net loss is expected to be widened, mainly attributable to investments in branding and ads. Over 88.4 percent of Pinduoduo’s RMB 1.2 billion ($180 million) Q1 revenue was spent on marketing. This could be translated as a sign of difficult traffic acquisition.

The most typical Pinduoduo users are price sensitive women that reside in low tier cities. Merchants are selling at a low price to appeal to this group. But how to maintain these users and its growth momentum is a big challenge for Pinduoduo now given rising product quality complaints.

“The retention rate is a big challenge of Pinduoduo, implying potential GMV slow down. Pinduoduo will have difficulty in upgrading to a marketplace of premium products because of its user demographics and brand image,” according to 86 Research.