If you thought that the days of Samwer brothers e-commerce investments with the eBays and Groupons of the world were over, think again. Today, their Berlin-based incubator Rocket Internet announced a new and strategic investment partner, the UK physical and online retail giant Tesco. Tesco, which is the world’s second-largest retailer by revenues (after Walmart) will now work in “close cooperation” with the brothers’ incubator. That will begin by leading a $250 million round in Lazada, an Amazon-like online marketplace with operations across Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Other Rocket regulars Access Industries, Kinnevik and Verlinvest also participated.
Other aspects of the deal, Rocket says, will include “customer analytics, private label development and supply chain management.” And as another part of the news, it has also expanded operations in the region with Lamido in Indonesia and Vietnam — a social commerce effort “to tap into the large informal e-commerce market of C2C transactions which includes thousands of shops on social networks such as Facebook.”
Rocket Internet — which is known mainly for incubating e-commerce startups — notes that this is the first time that Tesco has invested in a pure-play e-commerce operation. Up to now, Tesco has built an empire on Walmart-style supermarkets, primarily in the UK, using that to expand as a strong and early player in e-commerce in grocery and home goods delivery and later digital goods to complement the sale of electronics.
But the investment news comes at a tricky time for Tesco: the company has long been seen as an aggressive and successful retailer, but its strategy has stumbled in the past two years. In the last quarter sales were down 1.5% in its main UK stores, and sales in other markets in Europe were down 4%, and in Asia 5.1%. In September, it put its U.S. Fresh & Easy stores into bankruptcy (so, maybe not so Easy to crack the U.S., after all).
In that context, a focus on new, emerging markets that ride on operations that have already been seeded is a sign to investors that Tesco is now betting big on new opportunities. Emerging markets like Southeast Asia are a key target because they are large, and fast-growing. Southeast Asia as a region has some 600 million consumers who are only now really getting turned on to smartphones and shopping online.
Indeed, this seems to be the rationale for Tesco’s investment. “This investment in Southeast Asia’s largest e-commerce retailer continues our strategy of developing leading multichannel businesses in core growth markets,” said Robin Terrell, group multichannel director of Tesco, in a statement. “Lazada is an exciting, pioneering business which has developed a market-leading offer in each of its five markets in just 18 months.”
Notably, Rocket Internet has established e-commerce businesses spanning home goods, fashion, financial services and much more across every continent. It has put a particularly strong focus on operations in emerging markets in recent years because they are growing faster and are less crowded with competition, Oliver Samwer told me earlier this year in an interview. It has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from investors to build out these operations, often from repeat investors — something that could either point to sustained success if you are a Samwer believer or ponzi-like tendencies focused around clones, if you are one of their detractors.
The real truth is that it’s hard to tell, because as is usual with Rocket Internet, it is not revealing the revenues, net income/loos or any other financial metrics of its operations. However, Tesco is a publicly-traded company, and that will likely lead to demands for greater transparency in the future. (For now Rocket tells us that the operation has some 1,500 employees across five Southeast Asian countries and that Lazada is the “leading online general merchandiser across the region.”
Although Access Industries, controlled by Russian-born (now U.S. citizen) tycoon Len Blavatnik, is a regular Rocket Internet investor, this will be Access’ first investment in Lazada. “We are delighted to welcome Tesco and Access to join our investor group through this funding round,” said Maximilian Bittner, CEO of Lazada Group, in a statement.