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Coupang debuts with a bang

March 12, 2021, 3:32 PM UTC

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Coupang may get a lot of comparisons to Amazon, but it’s most certainly a different beast.

The South Korean company went public on Thursday, closing the day with its shares rising 40% on the New York Stock Exchange, valuing it at nearly $88 billion on a fully-diluted basis.

Often dubbed the “Amazon of South Korea,” the 11-year-old business has turned into a powerful e-commerce player in the country. And while it is taking pages out of Amazon’s early playbook by scaling first before focusing on profitability, it’s not taking pointers from more recent developments within the U.S.-based giant’s plans: Coupang plans to expand within the country rather than outside of it—unlike Amazon, which has made inroads in India among others.

“If you look at the size of the Korea market, the commerce market is just over $540 billion just in the next three years,” CEO Bom Kim told me when asked about any expansion outside of South Korea. “It’s a huge opportunity. We believe we were just three to four percent of the commerce market last year, which is such a small percentage. We’re just scratching at the surface.”

South Korea’s relative wealth, heavy Internet penetration, and high-population density have made it something of a prime breeding ground for e-commerce logistics, according to Goodwater Capital. While its 52 million citizens may not compare in numbers to the U.S. or China, South Korea has the highest online shopping penetration of any nation, according to Euromonitor.

And with an in-house army of delivery workers rather than using, say, an equivalent of a FedEx, Coupang has sought to capitalize on the economies of scale, taking on grocery as well as food delivery more recently.

And while Amazon has made moves into self-driving technology, including the acquisition of Zoox, Coupang’s IPO prospectus made no mention of the tech. In our conversation Thursday, Kim also downplayed investments in the space.

“We’re considering all different kinds of options for automation, and autonomous driving is certainly an interesting innovation that we work with. But right now we are just laser focused on what makes sense for us now,” he said.Still, the company has faced criticism over employee working conditions, with several deaths reported among its delivery and logistics workers. Korean politicians and the country’s Public Service and Transport Workers union, meanwhile, have linked eight of those deaths to overwork. Coupang for its has said that it is putting together reforms, but has also urged the media to stay away from reporting unconfirmed claims and speculation.

Lucinda Shen
Twitter: @shenlucinda


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