How SARS contributed to the birth of China ecommerce

5 February 2020

SARS was a turning point for China’s two online retail leaders, Alibaba and Here is how they navigated the crisis, what it meant for them, and what it might mean for ecommerce in China today.

Ker Zheng, marketing specialist, Azoya

As the coronavirus crisis in China surpasses over 20,000 infected patients, we look back at the 2003 SARS crisis to understand how the retail industry adapted to worsening market conditions.

Many will remember that over 8,000 people were infected by SARS, and nearly 800 perished. Schools, factories, and shops were closed, and China’s bustling cities quickly turned into ghost towns.

While the fatality rate of the current coronavirus is much lower at around 2-3%, the total number of cases has far surpassed that of SARS and continues to spread rapidly. It is uncertain how long this crisis will last, as SARS tapered off over the course of a few months.

Online sellers of essential fast-moving consumer goods and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals may see a surge in demand as more people stay at home and stock up for emergencies.

But in times of crisis there are always opportunities. We take a look at the challenges Chinese ecommerce pioneers Alibaba and faced in 2003 and how they overcame them, back in the early years of China’s nascent internet industry. and SARS 

In 2003 ecommerce was just starting to emerge in China. After all, not many people had access to the internet. Alibaba was primarily a B2B platform, connecting U.S. buyers with Chinese suppliers. was a chain of small electronics shops that launched an online ecommerce site. At the time, Richard Liu’s business had just 12 offline stores in Beijing, mostly hawking electronics such as CDs and camcorders. He had plans to expand to more than 500 stores and become the Gome of electronics. (Gome was a large Chinese consumer electronics retail chain.)

But business plummeted during SARS and the founder had to close all but one of his stores to conserve resources. He also resorted to selling goods by posting in QQ groups (groups that used the QQ instant messaging service from Chinese gaming company Tencent) and college BBS (bulletin board system) forums.

At the time ecommerce was relatively primitive. Employees had to manually jot down orders and send text messages to customers when orders had been shipped. Employees personally delivered orders to customers who were close to the office.

After seeing some interest from users on CNbest, an internet forum, he set up a revenue-sharing agreement with the company, giving them a cut of each transaction. Sales of CDs, hard disk drives, and CD players all went up.

By New Year’s Day the following year, Richard Liu officially launched his ecommerce website 360buy with about 100 products, and devoted the bulk of his resources to building his online business. This rest is history as the company quickly became one of the largest online retailers of electronics and, later, other categories in China. is No. 1 in the Digital Commerce 360 Asia 450, the ranking of Asian retailers by online sales of merchandise they own bu Digital Commerce 360 (formerly Internet Retailer.)

Alibaba and SARS

How did Alibaba fare during SARS?

At the time, Alibaba was a four-year old company that focused on B2B e-commerce, matching American procurement teams with Chinese suppliers. The annual Canton Fair in Guangzhou, as many in the industry know, was and still is one of the largest expos for cross-border B2B trade in China.


Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma and company employees during the 2003 SARS crisis. Source: Sohu

An Alibaba employee caught SARS when she was sent to attend the Canton Fair in May 2003. After she returned to Hangzhou (Alibaba’s headquarters city) and was hospitalized, she became the number four SARS patient in Hangzhou.

While news was suppressed, many within the Hangzhou community suspected Alibaba of spreading SARS in the city, giving the company a bad name. Alibaba’s 500+ employees were quarantined at home for twelve days and required to work from home.

Many countries around the world issued travel warnings for businessmen traveling to China, and thus many turned to Alibaba’s online business to source Chinese goods. Starting in March 2003, Alibaba’s B2B e-commerce business added 4,000 new members and 9,000 listings each day, a 3-5x increase over the pre-SARS rate.

Chinese suppliers, faced with few options, also invested more in online marketing on Alibaba’s platform. Alibaba’s business grew 50% that year and was seeing daily revenues of 10 million RMB. Over half of the 1.4 million suppliers on the B2B platform saw strong sales growth.

What’s more, that Alibaba launched Taobao that year, with Jack Ma commissioning a secret team of six people to work on launching the platform. At the time, the number one ecommerce marketplace in China was eBay, and Alibaba had only been around for four years.

Taobao was launched in July 2003, and within two years the upstart platform surpassed eBay to be the number one C2C (consumer-to-consumer) marketplace in China. (While Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall marketplaces account for a majority of online retail sales in China, Alibaba is not ranked in the Digital Commerce 360 Asia 450 because the goods sold on its marketplaces are owned by sellers, not by Alibaba. Taobao and Tmall, are No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the Digital Commerce 360 Online Marketplaces rankings of online retailer shopping portals worldwide.)

Opportunities in Today’s Coronavirus Crisis

The examples of Alibaba and show us that opportunities can be found in times of crisis.

What is different today is that China’s online ecommerce and on-demand delivery infrastructure is much more established and robust.

Restaurants, entertainment venues, and travel industry players have seen steep declines in demand. This will have a severe impact on small- and medium-sized businesses, who may have thinner margins and smaller cash piles to defend against downturns.

But other players such as fresh food supermarkets, convenience stores, and online sellers of essential fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and over-the-counter (OTC) pharmaceuticals may see a surge in demand as more people stay at home and stock up for emergencies.

While it’s still too early to tell, players should stay cautious and focus on providing useful content and products to customers in need.

Key Takeaways

  1.’s Richard Liu resorted to selling electronics on internet forums and QQ chat groups to keep his business afloat during the SARS crisis. He later devoted the bulk of his resources to the online business, growing it to become China’s largest online retailer of electronic products.
  2. Alibaba’s B2B e-commerce business thrived after foreign businessmen cancelled trips to China and began registering on its platform. The experience partly led to the birth of Taobao, which quickly surpassed eBay to become the largest C2C marketplace in China.
  3. Offline retail and travel industry players will suffer today as people lock themselves at home to avoid the coronavirus. But expect online retailing of essential FMCG, OTC pharmaceuticals, and groceries to see a surge in demand.