Urassaya 'Yaya' Sperbund with her Shopee commercial co-star Nadech Kugimiya. Photo: Sea / Shopee
Urassaya 'Yaya' Sperbund with her Shopee commercial co-star Nadech Kugimiya. Photo: Sea / Shopee

Dressed in a striking, short red couture dress, Yaya goes into a crazy dance routine which pays lip-service to the Oscar-winning Hollywood musical La La Land. Amid a kaleidoscope of color, she frantically taps at her smartphone as the soundtrack booms with innate lyrics, “Shopee … Shoo-pee … Shooo-pee.”

In what can only be described as a mind-scrambling commercial, this e-commerce production will drive you crazy on the Skytrains that criss-cross Bangkok. It is also the latest production, involving Thai superstar Urassaya Sperbund, and the latest salvo in the ongoing conflict between Alibaba, Amazon and Tencent in Southeast Asia.

At 25, Yaya, as Urassaya is known, rocketed to fame in the television series Duang Jai Akkanee, which loosely translates into Heart and Fire, and has starred in 22 TV dramas and has 6.6 million Instagram followers. The actress-singer-model is also a regular fixture at major fashion shows for exclusive labels such as Louis Vuitton.

“She is very big in Thailand,” Mint, a 20-something, who works for a leading media company in Bangkok, told Asia Times. “She has an amazing following.”

But translating that into hard financial numbers will prove challenging for Singapore-based Sea, which rolled out Shopee in 2015, with the backing of Tencent.

The Chinese e-commerce and gaming behemoth has a market value of US$508 billion, making it Asia’s most valuable listed group, as well as a substantial stake in Sea.

Online conglomerate

Pony Ma’s sprawling online conglomerate is still a major player in Shopee after the parent company went public in October.

Operating in Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, the mobile retail site reported more than $1.3 billion in gross merchandise value, or GMV, in the first half of 2017 and over 80 million sales.

Yet despite the figures and the vast marketing budgets, Sea and affiliate Shopee are struggling to make a profit.

“You don’t buy a firm like this because of its financials – you’re buying the dream of what it can become,” Keith Pogson, a global assurance leader for the banking and capital markets in Hong Kong at the consultancy EY, or Ernest Young, told Bloomberg. “There are [also] plenty of opportunities for Sea and Tencent to benefit each other.”

The rewards could be immense. According to the Google-Temasek 2017 eConomy SEA Spotlight report, there were 330 million active internet users in Southeast Asia last year, a rise of 70 million since 2015. E-commerce sales also topped $10.9 billion in GMV during the same period, a massive jump of nearly 50% compared to two years ago.

Leading lights such as Lazada and Shopee have provided “accessible platforms” reaching new consumers, the study stated, with mobile customers spending an average of 140 minutes per month.

YouTube video

“Among [the key] events [has been] the rise of Shopee’s mobile-first platform, the $250 million record-breaking sales by Lazada’s online revolution campaign and the increasing capital deployed by China’s bitter enemies, Alibaba and Tencent, in an attempt to ‘win’ the market,” the 2017 State of eCommerce survey compiled by iPrice, a privately owned online shopping aggregator in Kuala Lumpur, pointed out.

Indeed, this proxy war between China’s leading online groups is set to intensify as they deploy their logistics networks across the region.

Part of the Alibaba family, Lazada claimed its GMV topped $1.3 billion in 2016 before announcing that its annual customer base had increased to 23 million by the end of March last year, which is 3.6% of Southeast Asia’s population.

“With a young [audience], high mobile penetration and just 3% of the region’s retail sales conducted online, we feel very confident to double down [here],” Lucy Peng, an Alibaba co-founder, as well as chairwoman and CEO at Lazada, said in a statement.

Naturally, she would be “excited” as Alibaba has pumped close to $4 billion into Lazada, which operates in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore.

Earlier this month, the group invested an additional $2 billion into the Singapore retail company following the decision to boost its stake from 51% to 83% last year after taking control in 2016 with a cash injection of $1 billion.

Next phase

“Lazada is well-positioned for the next phase of development of internet-enabled commerce in this region, and we are excited about the incredible opportunities for supercharged growth,” Peng added.

Still, waiting in the wings to challenge Alibaba and Tencent for the ultimate prize of online retail dominance in Southeast Asia is Amazon, the all-consuming American giant, which has a blanket presence in the United States and Europe.

Founder Jeff Bezos topped Forbes’ global rich list last year and now he has his sights trained on this part of the world after entering the market in Vietnam with ‘local’ partner Vecom, which has 140 online businesses.

In 2017, Amazon also launched its e-commerce services, Prime and Prime Now, in Singapore and is looking to expand further. Cash, of course, is not a problem as analysts are predicting that the New York-listed leviathan could be the first company to be worth $1 trillion by the end of the year.

“Amazon has around 300 million clients from 180 nations,” Gijae Seong, the head of Amazon Global Selling Singapore, told a forum in Hanoi, which was reported by the Nikkei Asian Review earlier this month. “We provide tools to assist sellers and exporters to sell goods in broader markets in the easiest [possible] way.”

All it needs now is a catchy little commercial with an all-singing and all-dancing Asian superstar. Unfortunately, Yaya has already been signed up and is busy Shopee-ing.