China’s new tech force Pinduoduo is continuing its race to upend the e-commerce space, even at the expense of its finances. The three-year-old startup earmarked some big wins from the 2018 fiscal year, but losses were even greater, dragging its shares down 17 percent on Wednesday after the firm released its latest earnings results.
The Shanghai-based company is famous for offering cheap group deals; it’s able to keep prices down by sourcing directly from manufacturers and farmers, cutting out middleman costs. In 2018, the company saw its gross merchandise value, referring to total sales regardless of whether the items were actually sold, delivered or returned, jump 234 percent to 471.6 billion yuan ($68.6 billion). Fourth-quarter annual active buyers increased 71 percent to 418.5 million, during which monthly active users nearly doubled, to 272.6 million.
These figures should have industry pioneers Alibaba and JD sweating. In the 12 months ended December 31, JD fell behind Pinduoduo with a smaller AAU base of 305 million. Alibaba still held a lead over its peers with 636 million AAUs, though its year-over-year growth was a milder 23 percent.
But Pinduoduo also saw heavy financial strain in the past year as it drifted away from becoming profitable. Operating loss soared to 10.8 billion yuan ($1.57 billion), compared to just under 600 million yuan in the year-earlier period. Fourth-quarter operating loss widened a staggering 116 times to 2.64 billion yuan ($384 million), up from 22 million yuan a year ago.
Pinduoduo is presenting a stark contrast to consistently profitable Alibaba, which generates the bulk of its income from charging advertising fees on its marketplaces. This light-asset approach grants Alibaba wider profit margins than its arch-foe JD, which controls most of the supply chain like Amazon and makes money from direct sales. Pinduoduo seeks out a path similar to Alibaba’s and monetizes through marketing services, but its latest financial results showed that mounting costs have tempered a supposedly lucrative model.
Where did the e-commerce challenger spend its money? Pinduoduo’s total operating expenses from 2018 stood at 21 billion yuan ($3 billion), of which 13.4 billion yuan went to sales and marketing expenses such as TV commercials and discounts for users. Administration alongside research and development made up the remaining costs.
Pinduoduo’s spending spree recalls the path of another up-and-coming Chinese tech startup, Qutoutiao. Like Pinduoduo, Qutoutiao has embarked on a cash-intensive journey by burning billions of dollars to acquire users. The scheme worked, and Qutoutiao, which runs a popular news app and a growing e-book service, is effectively challenging ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) in smaller Chinese cities, where many veteran tech giants lack dominance.
Offering ultra-cheap items is a smart bet for Pinduoduo to lock in price-intensive consumers in unpenetrated, smaller cities, but it’s way too soon to know whether this kind of expensive growth will hold out long-term.