Alibaba unveils relief measures for online merchants affected by coronavirus outbreak

Zhang Shidong

Alibaba Group Holding, China’s biggest e-commerce company, said on Monday it was rolling out relief packages for online merchants affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

All online stores operating on its flagship Tmall will be exempt from service fees for the first half of the year, while all stores on Tmall and Taobao.com will be able to use an essential online tool kit to revamp their online storefronts free of charge, the company said in a statement. Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, will also waive two months’ rent for new users of its Cainiao logistics networks.

“We must make sure the services sector is ready to re-enter the race, and that funds get into the hands of the enterprises that need them,” the company said.

Alibaba is among technology companies that are pouring billions into philanthropy, to endear themselves to the tens of millions of bored, homebound Chinese consumers, hunkered down for the world’s largest quarantine exercise.

New-economy companies – whether it is online shopping on Taobao.com and Tmall, food deliveries on Meituan Dianping’s platform or Tencent Holdings’ online games – will benefit from the lockdown, analysts have said.

Ant Financial Services Group, Alibaba’s financial technology affiliate, will offer 10 billion yuan (US$1.43 billion) in loans to online merchants from Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak, through its virtual lender, MYBank, with no interest charged for the first three months and a 20 per cent discount for the remaining nine months, it said. The bank will also provide another 10 billion yuan in 12-month loans at favourable interest rates to merchants from other parts of China.

Ele.me and Koubei, Alibaba’s food delivery businesses, will earmark 1 billion yuan for the support of chain restaurant operators that have had to suspend services across the country because of the outbreak.

Alibaba will also set aside another billion yuan to subsidise its supply chain and courier businesses, and compensation will be provided to couriers, including extra allowance for order pickup and free insurance, the company said.

Elsewhere, Baidu, Meituan and Qihoo 360 have donated to the fight against the epidemic as well. Baidu has set up a 300 million yuan epidemic and public health security fund to support efforts such as screening, and the research and development of cures for diseases including the new coronavirus.

Meituan has established a fund totalling 200 million yuan to assist Chinese medical workers, and also opened an online donation channel on its app, allowing users to donate money for the fight against the ailment. It also provides 1,000 free takeaway meals every day for medical staff at hospitals in Wuhan, and has offered medical staff in Hubei province the free use of 300,000 shared bicycles.

Alibaba and its rivals, such as JD.com and Suning.com, have also endeavoured to prevent price spikes as far as medical items such as facial masks and disinfectants are concerned. They also offered non-stop delivery services during the Lunar New Year holiday.

Alibaba Health, the company’s health care unit, has made its telemedicine services available to residents of Hubei – encouraging patients with minor illnesses to consult doctors online – for free.

Shares of Alibaba have gained 2.6 per cent in Hong Kong this year, beating a 2.6 per cent loss on the benchmark Hang Seng Index. The stock dropped 1.3 per cent to HK$212.60 on Monday.

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