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When Alibaba raised $25 billion in its blockbuster I.P.O. in September, U.S.-based e-commerce companies were curious to know when the Chinese giant planned to begin spending that money to compete against them.
The answer is that no one really knows: Alibaba has been focused more on investing in the U.S. than in operating there. The China market, after all, is huge. Witness the $7-billion “Singles Day” shopping orgy the country celebrated on Tuesday.
Look more closely, though, and there are ways to discern Alibaba’s strategy. For instance, the only U.S. investment it discussed in its I.P.O. filing was the 39% stake it took in ShopRunner, an Amazon Prime-like service founded by the same team that started an Amazon competitor called GSI Commerce, now part of eBay . Alibaba invested about $200 million in ShopRunner last year. It also has invested in taxi-killer Lyft and game maker Kabam, but only ShopRunner earned the prospectus mention.
To learn more about ShopRunner I recently visited its offices in San Mateo, Calif. and the company’s CEO, Scott Thompson. You might remember him as the one-time CEO of Yahoo who left after reports that his resume wasn’t altogether accurate. He left Yahoo in 2012 and before that had been a top PayPal executive at eBay.
ShopRunner, it turns out, has an interesting niche. Whereas Amazon Prime customers can get anything under the sun—and then some, including streaming videos—delivered to them for $99 a year, ShopRunner customers get a more select, slightly more curated collection of brands. They pay $79 for free, two-day delivery. It’s a deal designed to attract consumers but also merchants, who see the value of not being glopped together with everyone else over at Amazon.
Thompson, the technology executive, is learning to talk like a merchant. “Retailers ask, ‘Who is my neighbor in the mall?’ There’s a lot of brand adjacency in retailing. Amazon has a lot of SKUs. So if you’re someone who is very thoughtful about your brand, you’re in the middle of a lot of stuff. Our attitude is, if it’s something you need, go with Amazon Prime. If it’s something you want and have an emotional connection to, that’s us.”