SEOUL, South Korea — The small white supply vehicles zip down streets throughout South Korea. The uniformed employees ship pictures of safely delivered packages to impatient clients. Employees can transfer so quick, their employer guarantees, that it calls the service “rocket supply.”
The vehicles and the operation belong to Coupang, a start-up based by a Harvard Enterprise Faculty dropout that has shaken up procuring in South Korea, an trade lengthy dominated by big, button-down conglomerates. In a rustic the place individuals are obsessive about “ppalli ppalli,” or getting issues performed shortly, Coupang has grow to be a family title by providing “next-day” and even “same-day” and “daybreak” supply of groceries and thousands and thousands of different gadgets at no further cost.
The corporate, which is typically referred to as the Amazon of South Korea, is ready to get an enormous endorsement on Thursday from Wall Avenue. Its shares are anticipated to start buying and selling in an preliminary public providing that can elevate $4.2 billion and worth the corporate at about $60 billion, the second-largest American tally for an Asian firm after Alibaba Group of China in 2014. On Wednesday its shares have been priced at $35, in keeping with an individual near the corporate.
Coupang might have the cash. South Korea’s huge conglomerates, referred to as chaebol, and others are constructing their very own supply networks as Coupang plans its growth. It faces different points, too, corresponding to rising issues about working situations after the demise of a number of Coupang warehouse and supply employees that some relations and labor activists blamed on overwork and poor labor practices.
For the second, Coupang is South Korea’s greatest e-commerce retailer, its standing additional cemented by individuals caught at residence in the course of the pandemic and people within the nation who crave sooner supply.
“I received’t go as far as to say I can’t dwell with out Coupang, as a result of there are such a lot of different on-line procuring choices accessible right here fiercely competing with one another, and a few of them may be as quick as Coupang or cheaper,” mentioned Kim Su-kyeong, a Coupang shopper and mom in Seoul. “However Coupang has branded itself so properly it’s the title that first involves my thoughts after I consider procuring on-line.”
As Bom Suk Kim, who began Coupang in 2010, likes to say, “Our mission is to create a world the place clients marvel ‘How did I ever dwell with out Coupang?’”
Mr. Kim, 42, ran an unofficial and short-lived Harvard alumni journal in america earlier than returning to his start nation to revolutionize its e-commerce trade. Coupang’s speedy development was pushed by a mix of daring entrepreneurship and branding.
The corporate’s title is a mixture of the English phrase “coupon” and “pang,” the Korean sound for hitting the jackpot. In an trade the place most supply employees drive round in nondescript vehicles carrying drab jackets, Coupang’s fleet of full-time drivers — often known as Coupang Males, however just lately renamed Coupang Mates — put on brilliant uniforms and cruise round in branded, company-issued automobiles.
“Coupang has grown quick by assembly two most vital wants of consumers: low cost costs and quick supply,” mentioned Ju Yoon-hwang, a professor of distribution administration at Jangan College. “Coupang additionally presents extra items than rivals, so shoppers consider they will discover something on Coupang.”
Only some start-ups — like Naver, South Korea’s dominant net portal and search engine, and Kakao, its main messaging app and on-line financial institution — have been as profitable as Coupang. However Naver and Kakao are each listed in South Korea. Mr. Kim took Coupang to Wall Avenue aiming to court docket greater buyers and the next valuation that may permit his firm to eclipse its rivals again residence.
South Korea is likely one of the world’s fastest-growing e-commerce markets, projected to grow to be the third largest on the earth this yr, behind solely China and america. Its quantity, valued at $128 billion final yr, is anticipated to achieve $206 billion by 2024, in keeping with Euromonitor Worldwide, a market analysis firm.
And it’s ideally suited for e-commerce. About 52 million individuals dwell within the nation, a overwhelming majority of them in densely populated cities. Almost each residence has high-speed web, and folks pay taxes and fuel payments with smartphones.
Lengthy earlier than e-commerce arrived, South Korea already had a vibrant supply tradition. Households positioned telephone calls to get their meals delivered across the clock. Dry-clean employees climbed stairs in condominium buildings to ship freshly pressed garments. Bike couriers ferried paperwork, flowers and whatnot from one district to a different.
Coupang’s first rivals have been eBay-style marketplaces the place clients discovered sellers. Deliveries have been made by third-party logistics corporations that contracted with impartial couriers. Deliveries might take a number of days.
When Coupang started its “rocket supply” service in 2014, it set off a value and supply warfare. It has since constructed its personal community of logistics hubs, with 70 p.c of the inhabitants now residing inside seven miles of a Coupang logistics heart, in keeping with the corporate. The corporate says it makes use of machine studying to foretell demand and stockpile items at warehouses. It additionally runs its personal fleet of 15,000 full-time Coupang Buddy couriers.
It has additionally doubled its work drive to 50,000 in 2020, changing into South Korea’s third-largest private-sector employer. It plans to create 50,000 extra jobs by 2025.
Analysts mentioned Coupang has borrowed from Amazon’s playbook by looking for to grow to be a dominant market drive earlier than turning a revenue. The corporate’s revenues nearly doubled final yr to $12 billion. However its large investments in its logistics community, made potential by the funding from overseas buyers like Japan’s SoftBank and its Imaginative and prescient Fund, has stored it within the crimson. Its annual internet loss ballooned to $1 billion in 2018 earlier than narrowing to $475 million final yr.
It just lately launched Coupang Eats, a meal-delivery service, and Coupang Play, a video streaming app. However in contrast to Amazon, Coupang doesn’t produce other companies, like cloud computing, that may simply generate the money wanted for large expansions. And rivals are placing up fierce competitors.
A few of the chaebol, the family-controlled conglomerates that dominate the financial system, are increasing their e-commerce enterprise, particularly Lotte and Shinsegae, which function the nation’s greatest division retailer and shopping center chains. So is Naver, which is already an e-commerce big.
As competitors heats up, superfast supply is shortly changing into the brand new norm, weakening the novelty of Coupang’s “rocket supply” service.
Coupang has additionally confronted scrutiny over its labor practices. Former Coupang employees and labor activists accuse the corporate of exploiting its warehouse employees in its mad rush to show round orders as quick as potential.
Because the variety of employees doubled, the quantity of people that suffered from work-related accidents or diseases at Coupang and its warehouses jumped to 982 in 2020 from 515 in 2019, in keeping with authorities information.
“Coupang is an inhumane firm that treats its employees like slaves or machine components, squeezing them till the final drop,” mentioned Park Mi-sook, whose son, Jang Deok-joon, died of a coronary heart assault final October, shortly after returning residence from an in a single day shift at a Coupang warehouse. His demise was dominated a work-related incident, and Coupang has since apologized.
Coupang has denied mistreating its employees. Final yr alone, it mentioned, it invested $443 million within the automation of its warehouses and elevated its warehouse work drive by 78 p.c, to twenty-eight,400, to make its employees extra environment friendly and reduce the workload.
“What has made Coupang’s rocket supply potential was its large employment and funding,” the corporate mentioned in a press release.
And it continues to pitch itself as a necessary service for busy South Koreans.
In a letter to potential buyers, Mr. Kim put ahead an instance of a quintessential Coupang shopper: a working mom who, late at night time, realizes she has forgotten to buy groceries, after which locations an order on-line via Coupang.
“When she opens her eyes, it’s like Christmas morning,” wrote Mr. Kim. “The order is ready at her entrance door.”