I put out a survey two weeks back about ecommerce enablers to find out the sentiment towards these companies in ASEAN, if brands actually use them (why or why not), and areas where they believed partners could improve.

The answers I received were not what I expected.

60 percent of respondents reported using an “ecommerce enabler”, but given their answers, most didn’t understand the difference between a marketplace and an enabler.

ecommerceIQ

Very simply put, ecommerce enablers are service providers that help a brand execute its digital strategy through a one-stop solution. This solution encompasses content production, web platform optimization, performance marketing, technology to integrate all digital channels, all the way to customer care, fulfillment and/or delivering it to the end customer’s doorstep.

Ecommerce enablers provide a client with whatever it takes to sell successfully online.

Popular examples in Southeast Asia include: aCommerce, iCommerce, etc.

Lazada, Shopee, 11street are not ecommerce enablers, they are the platforms for businesses to sell on. Sure, they might lend a brand an account manager who periodically checks in but their goal is to push for lower product prices and exclusive channel promotions.

The marketplace is neither charging the business for this service or providing special treatment – if a better performing merchant comes along, it catches you later.

This is why Alibaba’s Tmall has its own list of Tmall Partners – specialised agencies that build functional stores for businesses on the Tmall platform. Tmall itself is not the enabler.

The same goes for marketing platforms such as MailChimp, payment gateways like Paypal and delivery companies like Kerry Express or NinjaVan – they may not be ecommerce enablers but they are important pieces of the ecommerce supply chain.

This distinction is vital to the growth of ecommerce in Southeast Asia, especially as most global brands – Samsung, Unilever, L’Oreal, etc. – are choosing to outsource their ecommerce BUs to other experts.

Why? Because inhouse teams aren’t sure how to structure themselves. Over 65 percent of global marketers feel teams are “somewhat integrated” or “broken out by channel”. For ecommerce to work, Marketing needs to align with Sales, and Service.

 

ecommerceIQ

But ecommerce isn’t a magical band-aid capable of fixing all problems – especially not corporate silos.

Aื FMCG industry leader recently asked me, “what is something you would do to improve my brand’s digital strategy?”

My reply?

“Establish internally what the business wants from ecommerce, who’s in charge of this division and the resources the business is willing to dedicate before even bothering to bring on an enabler. Without internal alignment, it becomes one inefficient mess and everyone ends up pulling hair.”

After working with some of the world’s top brands – Unilever, Microsoft, Reckitt Benckiser, Payless, Samsung – I’ve been fortunate enough to see how these well-oiled machines function and why it doesn’t necessarily work for ecommerce.

The beauty of digital is that it’s instantaneous, which is the complete opposite of how decisions are made in these enormous corporations. It’s new, it’s disruptive.

Online moves quickly and requires constant care because a store that never sleeps means inventory, pricing, recommendations, customer support need to be up to date 24/7. It gets even more complicated when the ecommerce enabler needs to manage a brand.com and a marketplace shop-in-shop (SIS).

What often gets overlooked by brands is the shift in power.

Dangling more visibility over the thousands of grey market and official sellers on its site, a marketplace will push aggressively for more deals, more exclusivity, more vouchers, now, now, yesterday, while the brand pushes back with the same tenacity, touting “channel conflict”, and scrambling to squeeze funds from other departments.

The brand finally ends up throwing paperwork at the problem two weeks past the deadline.

Who wins?

No one.

Certainly not the enabler.

How is it in 2018, we still don’t know how to do ecommerce?

As a marketplace, its job is to offer the best deals and shopping experience to customers to grab market share. It does this by subsidizing prices, and by nudging its merchants to sell more and offer exclusives.

As a brand, its job is to sell to as many customers as possible, keep its distributors civil, maintain brand consistency across channels and mitigate the amount of friction between departments. It does this by offering the same promotions to each channel partner, allocating resources in a democratic fashion and following processes to a tee.

As an ecommerce enabler, its job is to work with its client and ecommerce partners (marketplace, 3PL, payment gateways, etc.) to increase GMV by optimizing digital channels. It does this by executing on behalf of the brand a strong digital strategy, which sometimes means bartering with the marketplace for more visibility for its clients.

Ecommerce enablers are by far nowhere near perfect. Imagine a marriage counsellor trying to find compromise between two hot-headed and egotistic partners refusing to budge but still looking to have a long term relationship.

Oh, and sessions aren’t once a week, it’s an uphill climb everyday. This respondent hit it on the head when describing what they did not like about its enabler.

“Not mature business yet.”

While the concept of ecommerce is not new in the world, the execution, talent and best practices are still nascent in Southeast Asia.

Customers in APAC need education on ecommerce, a company’s ecommerce team in APAC needs education on how to work with other departments, and marketplaces in APAC are still figuring out how to be more like Alibaba and Amazon, two companies with over 10 years operating experience.

An ecommerce enabler is supposed to have all the answers. While a challenge to take on, especially in Southeast Asia, it’s a hot business with a lot to gain, and probably why ecommerce enablers have popped up all over Southeast Asia and India.

And it’s been somewhat positive for respondents using an enabler as majority would recommend it to a friend or colleague.

“Getting an ecommerce enabler should definitely be considered, regardless of what stage a business who wants or is doing ecommerce is in.”

“Allows me to focus on my core business capability and rest assured online segment is still moving along.”

ecommerceIQ

Now what?

Now that the distinction has been made between a marketplace, a payment gateway, a marketing tool and an ecommerce enabler who ties them all together, a business needs to decide whether it needs marriage counselling.

Is it more cost effective to invest and build a team to manage digital channels inhouse or outsource it to a third-party partner? The survey respondents listed reasons why they work with an enabler:

“Aligned with brand principal interest and cost effective”
“Short time to market, revenue growth”
“Strong communications, effective operations”

Now you’ve identified you need one, how do you choose an ecommerce enabler?

  • Assess the experience of its leaders – do they have a strong track record in high-performing digital businesses?
  • Assess the existing clientele – are you in a similar tier/size/industry?
  • Assess the company’s own digital footprint – their performance marketing will be telling of the performance marketing they do for you
  • Assess the scope of work – is the enabler incentivized to sell more for your business?

And now take a look at your own business and decide whether it’s ready to commit to ecommerce. Is there an efficient approval process in place for resource allocation and commercial sign off for digital channels? Is there a C-level stakeholder responsible for P&L?

If not, time to move fast because in the digital world, it’s either give all or risk losing a lot.

 

Want to build an ecommerce strategy in Southeast Asia or speak to an enabler? Send an email to hello@ecommerceIQ.asia or fill out the contact form below





    On June 28, 2018, Alibaba announced the launch of Taobao Xinxuan (淘宝心选), which translates to ‘Taobao Selected’. After a year in alpha testing, the company’s new concept is finally available to the wider public.

    Through the website or one of two physical stores in Hangzhou and Shanghai, users can shop for affordable quality lifestyle and functional daily necessity goods including home fragrance, smart power sockets, underwear, and sonic-control toothbrushes.

    ecommerceIQ

    Rimowa?

    According to TechNode, the recently opened store in Shanghai was raided and emptied by eager customers in a mere two hours.

    What is Taobao Xinxuan?

    Appearance wise, the Taobao Xinxuan concept will remind many of Japanese retailer Muji, whose clean and simplistic stores offer a wide range of quality and affordable clothing, stationery, bags, and even furniture.

    ecommerceIQ

    Taobao Xinxuan Store Concept Design

    From a business model perspective, Taobao Xinxuan is actually more like Xiaomi, the smartphone-manufacturer-turned-global-electronics brand. Its Manufacturer-to-Consumer (M2C) approach and short supply chain allows the company to quickly go from the latest consumer insights to manufacturers to create products and achieve go-to-market in a few months.

    ecommerceIQ

    Xiaomi Flagship Store in Shanghai

    ecommerceIQ

    Xiaomi Flagship Store in Shanghai

    Arguably, Taobao Xinxuan could be considered a clone of the M2C ecommerce platform launched by Chinese gaming company NetEase called Yanxuan. Since its release in 2016, Yanxuan has seen rapid growth in a unique vertical that avoids direct competition with Alibaba and JD.com.

    The Yanxuan model can be described as an ODM (Original Design Manufacturer) model as well. By going directly to Chinese manufacturers creating products for established global brands, NetEase is able to get the same quality while selling at a much lower price by skipping over distributors.

    ecommerceIQ

    NetEase’s Yanxuan website

    By targeting young, mainly urban consumers who value quality and design but are also price sensitive, Yanxuan has been able to achieve rapid growth in the Chinese ecommerce space. The company reached a monthly GMV (gross merchandise volume) of RMB 60 million (about US$9 million) by Q3 2016, only a few months after its initial launch. This allowed Yanxuan to break into the list of top 10 Chinese ecommerce platforms based on GMV.

    ecommerceIQ

    Yanxuan Home & Living Category

    Alibaba’s New Trojan Horse?

    For a business to execute the M2C model well, it needs to understand what consumers want and then act on it swiftly. Considered the pioneer in M2C in China, Xiaomi is well known for asking its users directly what they’d like to see in terms of new features and products.

    Another company that knows what its users want is – surprise, surprise – Alibaba. Being the largest ecommerce company in China, Alibaba has extensive data on what brands and products people are buying and when and where. This doesn’t even include the additional data it gathers through its other businesses Ant Financial, Ali Health, and its offline Hema supermarkets and ‘New Retail’ initiatives.

    Alibaba’s US counterpart Amazon hasn’t shied-away from using its data to introduce its own private label brands to compete directly with the other brands selling on its platform.

    “The company now has roughly 100 private label brands for sale on its huge online marketplace, of which more than five dozen have been introduced in the past year alone. But few of those are sold under the Amazon brand. Instead, they have been given a variety of anodyne, disposable names like Spotted Zebra (kids clothes), Good Brief (men’s underwear), Wag (dog food) and Rivet (home furnishings).”

    New York Times, ‘How Amazon Steers Shoppers to Its Own Products’

    And this move by Amazon isn’t a small pilot project. Amazon private labels have a large impact on revenue:

    “The results were stunning. In just a few years, AmazonBasics had grabbed nearly a third of the online market for batteries, outselling both Energizer and Duracell on its site.”

    Amazon’s home court advantage gives it a leg up versus other brands:

    “Take word searches. About 70 percent of the word searches done on Amazon’s search browser are for generic goods. That means consumers are typing in “men’s underwear” or “running shoes” rather than asking, specifically, for Hanes or Nike.

    For Amazon, those word searches by consumers allow it to put its private-label products in front of the consumer and make sure they appear quickly. In addition, Amazon has the emails of the consumers who performed searches on its site and can email them directly or use pop-up ads on other websites to direct those consumers back to Amazon’s marketplace.”

    Alibaba has been flying under the radar with regards to any private label initiatives, and for good reason. Unlike Amazon, which started out as a retailer buying and selling products, Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall properties are pure marketplace plays from the beginning. Because Alibaba’s main goal is helping connect merchants and buyers via its platforms, a neutral stance is essential to the platform’s success.

    It’s not surprising then that Alibaba decided to launch Xinxuan as ‘Taobao Xinxuan’ rather than ‘Tmall Xinxuan’. Originally a part of Taobao, Tmall spun off to provide a more premium B2B2C marketplace for authentic brands to sell their products online. Mixing in Xinxuan’s private label products would only upset brands competing in similar product categories.

    Lazada’s LazMall a stepping stone towards introducing Lazada private label in Southeast Asia?

    Last week, Lazada officially launched LazMall, its Southeast Asian version of Tmall. It’s a move towards splitting Lazada (‘b-to-C’) and LazMall (‘B-to-c’) and aims to offer a premium place for big brands to sell online, away from the grey market sellers on the platform.

    ecommerceIQ

    From the outside, this looks like an obvious move against JD, known to offer a better customer experience according to our recent Indonesia online marketplace survey.

    However, seeing Alibaba’s new concept in China with Taobao Xinxuan, it’s not far-fetched the LazMall spin-off will lead to Lazada M2C private label brands in the near future.

    The Chinese ecommerce market, being about 10 years ahead of the Southeast Asian one, acts like a crystal ball for brands operating in our region. Battle-tested brands with operations in China know better to diversify their channels before putting all their eggs into a single basket.

    Southeast Asian-native brands are recommended to shake off their naivety and learn from China’s history.

    Monogamy in ecommerce does not lead to happiness.