Alibaba has taken over SunArt's supermarket outlets. Photo: Handout

China’s e-commerce behemoth Alibaba has bought a controlling US$3.6 billion stake in SunArt, which runs hundreds of hypermarkets on the mainland for French shopping giant Auchan.

The move to take a 72% holding in SunArt tightens Alibaba’s grip on China’s vast e-commerce sector as it looks to soak up the new customers pushed online to buy groceries, fresh food and healthcare products by the coronavirus.

It also hands over control of 13 million square meters of retail space in scores of cities across the country.

SunArt was created by Auchan in 2000 with Ruentex Group and joined in an “alliance” with Alibaba in 2017.

That tie-in gave the Chinese firm ownership of about one-third of the hypermaket company.

Alibaba quickly set about transforming SunArt from a traditional bricks-and-mortar hypermarket to an online grocery hub, matching its wider e-commerce goods business.

“Sun Art has made significant progress in the digital transformation,” Alibaba said in a statement Monday announcing its $3.6 billion investment.

The supermarket chain has since been “leveraging resources and technology from the Alibaba ecosystem.”

The buyout of SunArt will boost a promise to deliver groceries within 30-60 minutes of being ordered over Alibaba’s Tmall platform, the statement added.