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Starbucks partners with Alibaba on coffee delivery to boost China business

Starbucks is palling up with Alibaba as it seeks to rediscover growth for its business in China.

China has been a bright spot for some time for the U.S. coffee giant, but lately it has struggled to maintain growth — its China business dragged on its Q3 financials — and it is up against some ambitious new rivals, including billion-dollar startup Luckin Coffee.

One-year-old Luckin recently raised $200 million from investors and it has already built quite a presence. It claims over 500 outlets across China and it taps into the country’s mobile trends, with mobile payments and orders and delivery, too. Then there are some deep discounts aimed at getting new users, as is common with food, cars and other on-demand services.

In response, Starbucks is injecting some of that ‘New Retail’ strategy into its own China presence — and it is doing so with none other than Alibaba, the company that coined the phrase, which signifies a marriage between online and offline commerce.

The partnership between Alibaba and Starbucks is wide-ranging and it will cover delivery, a virtual store and collaboration on Alibaba’s “new retail” Hema stores.

The delivery piece is perhaps most obvious, and it’ll see Starbucks work with Ele.me, the $9.5 billion food delivery platform owned by Alibaba, to allow customers to order and receive coffee without visiting a store. The service will start in September in Beijing and Shanghai, with plans to expand to 30 cities and over 2,000 stores by the end of this year.

Starbucks is also building its app into Alibaba’s array of e-commerce sites, including its Tmall brand e-mall and Taobao marketplace. That’s a move that Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson told CNBC would operate “similar to the mobile app embedded right into that experience” and open Starbucks up to Alibaba’s 500 million-plus users.

Finally, Starbucks is bringing its own “Starbucks Delivery Kitchens” to Alibaba’s Hema stores, which feature robots and mobile-based orders, that will combine Starbucks stores to boost its delivery capacity and speed.

Starbucks, as mentioned, needed a boost in China but the deal is also a major coup for Alibaba, which is battling JD.com on the new retail front as well as ambitious on-demand service Meituan. The latter is reported to have recently filed for an IPO in Hong Kong that could raise it $4 billion.

Alibaba to buy all remaining outstanding shares of local delivery service Ele.me

As expected since February, Alibaba will buy all outstanding shares of Ele.me that it doesn’t already own. Best-known for food deliveries, Ele.me claims to be China’s biggest online delivery and local services platform. In an announcement, Alibaba said the deal values Ele.me at $9.5 billion. Alibaba, which first invested in Ele.me two years ago, and its affiliate Ant Small and Micro Financial Services Group currently hold about 43% of the company’s outstanding voting shares.

This is the latest in a string of investments and acquisitions by Alibaba to expand its physical retail presence as part of its so-called “new retail” strategy to combine e-commerce and offline retail. The company’s goal is to make it easier for users to move (and spend money) between brick-and-mortar stores and Alibaba businesses like Tmall and Taobao. For example, they may view products at pop-up stores and then order them on their smartphones for almost-immediate home delivery.

Ele.me, which will continue to operate under its own brand, is at its heart a logistics technology company. Founded in 2008, it utilizes its logistics system to provide services like Fengniao, an express courier for local deliveries. After the deal is finalized, Alibaba said that founder and chief executive officer Zhang Zhuhao (also known as Mark Zhang) will become chairman of Ele.me and special advisor to Alibaba Group CEO Daniel Zhang on its new retail strategy. Wang Lei, currently vice president of Alibaba Group, will take over as Ele.me’s CEO.

In a press release, Zhang said “Under the leadership of its founder and management team, Ele.me has achieved leading market share in China’s online food delivery and local services sector. Our shared belief that New Retail will create more value for customers and merchants has brought us together. Looking forward, Ele.me can leverage Alibaba’s infrastructure in commerce and
find new synergies with Alibaba’s diverse businesses to add further momentum to the New Retail initiative.”

Bloomberg reported at the end of February that Alibaba planned to buy the rest of Ele.me’s shares from its other investors, including Baidu.

The deal deepens Alibaba’s competition with Tencent, in particular its own local services and delivery platform, Meituan Dianping, which was formed by a merger in 2015. Alibaba previously owned shares in Meituan Dianping, thanks to its investment in Meituan, but began offloading them soon after the merger with Dianping.

In a statement, Alibaba said Ele.me complements its affiliate Koubei, a platform that gives restaurants and stores a way to go online and reach more local customers.

“By combining Ele.me’s online home delivery services with Koubei’s consumer acquisition and engagement capability for a range of restaurants and service establishments, Alibaba will be able to offer an integrated experiences to customers both online and offline,” said the company.