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What are the Main E-Commerce Drivers in Emerging Markets?

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With e-commerce use accelerating on the back of improved Internet penetration in emerging markets, it is important to recognise the specificities of local consumers and how they approach online shopping. Unlike in most advanced economies, both the choice and range of goods on offer by web retailers in developing markets are limited, which is driving demand for global shipping and cross-border commerce. Mobile retail is far more popular in emerging markets, since for many the web-enabled mobile handset is often the only point of Internet access. Providing an expansive range of payment options is also key to reaching a wider audience, since most emerging nations are significantly underbanked.

E-Commerce and Mobile Internet Subscriptions Growth in BRIC Countries: 2009-2014


Source: Euromonitor International from trade sources/national statistics/International Telecommunications Union (ITU)

Choice and range enhanced by global shipping

Retailers in many developing countries have limited stocks of goods, and domestic e-commerce in these regions can therefore be limited in terms of international products. For example, China has a wealth of low-cost fashion and electronics products but searching out specific types of authentic, branded goods –such as a real Gucci handbag or an Alienware gaming computer – can be difficult. Even if these products are available, they come with a price premium due to their rarity on the marketplace.

The solution has become cross-border e-commerce, largely made available by improved (in terms of time and bureaucracy) shipping routes. International retailers such as eBay, Amazon and AliExpress are targeting the developing world’s 1.9 billion Internet users (as of 2014) and developing partnerships with local postage operators to ensure smooth delivery. This form of e-commerce is typically expanding at triple the rate of domestic Internet retailing across emerging markets.

Nonetheless, the segment faces challenges such as widely contrasting taxing laws on foreign imports on a country-by-country basis, remaining held-ups at border controls during busy festive periods, and the lengthy return times for incorrect or damaged products.

Range of payments is key to serve diverse and underbanked shoppers

Unlike in advanced economies, many emerging markets have large underbanked populations. In Brazil, for example, more than a third of the 15+ population held no bank account in 2014. In order to reach a wider audience, online retailers must therefore provide as many possible payment methods as possible.

Whereas in countries such as the UK and USA payments are primarily carried out online via bank card or a mainstream digital currency (such as PayPal), in a country such as China payments are accepted via stand-alone street terminals, mobile phone credit, via local telecom stores, a selection of (both foreign and domestic) cryptocurrencies, digital currencies, online wallets, and of course cash-on-delivery. This enables the entire Internet-using spectrum to find a payment means to suit them, and has helped make China’s the fastest expanding e-commerce market worldwide over 2009-2014, with a real rise of over 4,000% in value.

The online retailer’s primary goal is to survive in a cash-driven environment, which still dominates most emerging markets.

Emerging consumers more active in mobile and social media shopping

Although advanced economies boast much higher smartphone and mobile Internet penetration rates, emerging market consumers are well ahead of their wealthier counterparts in using their handset to shop. According to a 2014 report by Deloitte Digital, Brazil is the global leader in retail sales influenced by mobile devices, which drive 40.0% of its e-commerce site traffic. The country’s mobile Internet subscriptions increased by almost 1,500% over the 2009-2014 period.

The importance of the mobile is often a necessity rather than a choice. Many emerging markets in Asia Pacific, Latin America and Africa are mobile-first, meaning the mobile handset is the first web-enabled device accessed by consumers. Laptops and desktop PCs are simply found in much fewer homes than in developed countries.

Emerging markets are also more responsive to social commerce. According to Euromonitor’s Hyperconnectivity Survey 2014, consumers in most major emerging economies (such as India, China, Colombia and Turkey) are around twice as likely to purchase an item via a social media platform as those in advanced countries. In part, this is because emerging market shoppers tend to be more community-driven and are willing to integrate into a social shopping network if they believe there are discounts to be had.

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