This is the last of a four-part series breaking down Alibaba’s plan to shake up logistics in China: Cainiao Network. PART 1, PART 2, PART 3

Cainiao’s Platform Model Versus Jingdong’s Direct Model

By analyzing the aforementioned five pillars of Cainiao Network, we find that the implementation of its strategies cannot be achieved without collaboration with other partners such as warehouse storage operations. This reveals Cainiao Network’s business model implementation approach: a data-driven “platform model” (i.e. decentralized, horizontally integrated, asset-light).

Clearly, the platform model advocated by Cainiao Network is very different from the “direct model” (i.e. centralized, vertically integrated, asset-heavy) represented by Jingdong and SF Express and represents a different logistics development approach.

But it’s not a simple comparison – whichever fits a company’s own needs at any given stage is the most appropriate approach.

The advantage of the direct model of Jingdong lies in the high degree of control and better experience it can bring. As long as ecommerce logistics has massive demand reflected in warehousing and distribution, Cainiao’s platform model can achieve rapid growth.

In Cainiao Network’s view, the platform model is the inevitable future of logistics. Cainiao’s president Tong Wenhong believes that the direct model has no future and “Jingdong will eventually use Alibaba’s model in the future” on the grounds that Jingdong needs seventy to eighty thousand logistics personnel to process a daily parcel volume of one million and SF Express needs close to 400,000 logistics staff to handle a daily capacity of 4 million parcels.

When the number of China’s packages reaches 200 million, how many logistics staff will be needed to deliver them? The director of strategic cooperation at Cainiao Network, Li Wei, has said that “in the pyramid-shaped management structure of the direct model, each layer added will result in additional management costs of about 30% being passed along.”

The direct model ensures better service and timeliness, but it cannot solve the problem of scale. Cainiao hopes to help logistics companies through a platform approach with the goal of improving service and timeliness through technical means rather than brute (human) force.

Cainiao’s Platform Model Has its Skeptics—SF Express

Although Cainiao is very confident about its own platform model, its partners are not and some are even rejecting it. When Cainiao Network was established, it claimed bring innovation to the express delivery industry using a cloud system and warehousing storage system.

Two years later, these original strategies became the previously highlighted five key strategies: the express delivery strategy, the warehousing and distribution strategy, the pickup stations strategy, the cross-border logistics strategy and the rural logistics strategy.

The first three strategies almost closely control the operating lifeline of courier companies: that is, they intervene in terms of data, control delivery routes, and seize the last-mile. Needless to say, it will cause resistance by courier companies.

Take SF Express as an example. Even though SF Express and the “Three TOs and One Da” were all 1% stakeholders when Cainiao was established in 2013, they have expressed disagreements regarding their position with respect to Cainiao.

During the “Cainiao Jianghu Assembly”, more than 10 representative courier companies led by the “Three TOs and One Da” appeared to support Alibaba; only SF Express was absent. When facing the matter of business alliances, the strategies of the “Three TOs and One Da” are completely different from that of SF Express.

“The Three TOs and One Da” have difficulty coming to a resolution, while SF Express wants to get rid of the control of Cainiao Network platform and its ambition to be independent is abundantly clear. To show you why, let’s look at a simple comparison of SF Express and Cainiao Network.

cainiao business-model

Through the above comparative analysis, SF has been keeping an alert and sober eye on Cainiao for some time, and it has even tried to “challenge” Alibaba. The “Three TOs and One Da”, on the other hand, have been strategically ambiguous.

At present, it is hard to say who will win and who will lose—this is a long-distance race, and at this moment, the competition is more about who has made the best preparations for the future.


This three part series aimed to systematically review and analyze the commercial trajectory and development of Cainiao Network over the past two years since its establishment in 2013.

It also focuses on Cainiao Network’s strategic positioning to complete Alibaba’s own business ecosystem, and points out the five current strategic directions and implementation approaches of Cainiao Network. The main conclusions are as follows:

  1. Consumers have long complained about poor logistics in China. With the growth of the direct logistics approach of Jingdong, Alibaba’s logistics business has been at a greater and greater competitive disadvantage. This is the real reason why Cainiao has doubled-down building its own warehouses.
  1. Compared with the ecommerce and financial services business that Alibaba has successfully launched before, Cainiao’s current efforts involve many offline courier and logistics issues.

The complexity involved in completing the full integration of online and offline is beyond imagination – no precedent outside of China can be referred to. Also, Cainiao’s partners are cautious and alert and have their own contingency plans. Therefore, it is difficult to say whether Cainiao’s platform approach will be successful in the future.

Implications For Logistics in Southeast Asia

As Alibaba may have noticed, Southeast Asia shares a lot of similarities with China a decade ago, especially in terms of a nascent and fragmented logistics ecosystem.

Because of the pain points in logistics, plenty of investor funding has gone into this space. Companies like Ninja Van, Deliveree and the now-defunct Zyllem have raised millions to tackle the last-mile challenge in SEA – even Lazada invested in its own delivery fleet as part of Lazada Express (LEX).

In this kind of environment, introducing a platform like Cainiao would make a lot of sense. A central platform with large address database and route optimization would improve the efficiency of logistics in the region.

On the other hand, it could also spell bad news for last-mile delivery companies in the region because Cainiao would end up controlling the supply of packages, the data, the rules, and potentially turn last-mile logistics into a price-driven, commodity play.

Alibaba was able to get Cainiao off the ground due to the massive order volume from Tmall and Taobao combined. In SEA, there’s no single dominant player who commands the bulk of all orders making Alibaba’s acquisition of Lazada a likely first step towards introducing Cainiao. As we’ve seen with Alipay and Ant Finance, Cainiao in Southeast Asia may not be a matter of “if” but rather “when”.

The original first appeared in Chinese on Yunbao88. Concluding excerpt by Sheji Ho, editing by ecommerceIQ team.

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