Starbucks and Alibaba join forces as China coffee war brews

Starbucks coffees will be delivered to Chinese consumers with the help of e-commerce giant Alibaba, the companies said Thursday, as two of the world's biggest names in retail join forces in a China coffee war that is rapidly heating up.

The partnership comes with Starbucks facing an aggressive challenge from Chinese upstart Luckin Coffee, which has grown rapidly on a business model of delivering beverages ordered via mobile apps.

"We truly believe that this enduring partnership will elevate the coffee culture in China," Starbucks president and CEO Kevin Johnson said at a Shanghai news conference.

Starbucks products ordered by mobile apps will be brought to customers by, Alibaba's food-delivery unit.

Johnson called the tie-up "rocket fuel" for the US company's emerging digital strategy.

But Luckin, which has spiced the brewing rivalry by accusing Seattle-based Starbucks of "monopolistic" practices in China, tartly dismissed the Alibaba alliance.

In a statement, co-founder and Senior Vice President Guo Jinyi labelled Starbucks a "latecomer" that was "imitating others and losing its own individuality."

Traditionally tea-drinking China is seeing an explosion in coffee consumption, becoming Starbucks' key market after the United States and its main source of new growth.

Seattle-based Starbucks has more than 3,400 cafes in more than 140 Chinese cities and plans to double its stores by 2022. It has said a new Starbucks opens every 15 hours in China.

Starbucks officials stressed that its existing growth thrust would continue, but that the Alibaba tie-up would add "Starbucks delivery kitchens" to supermarkets run by Alibaba.