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The Background

Back in 1851, a small apothecary was established in the neighborhood of East Village, New York by John Kiehl. Breaking away from typical drug stores that offered common compounds and nostrums prepared onsite, John chose to open a store that focused on essentials oils, homeopathic and herbal remedies to achieve his objective — keeping the local community happy, healthy, and feeling their best.

The apothecary remained in the family for 70 years until it was purchased by Kiehl’s apprentice, Irving Morse, in 1921 before his son, Aaron Morse, took over in 1950 and added grooming products for men and women to the brand’s product line.

Aaron was also the one who introduced free samples to customers and is still practiced at today’s global cosmetics powerhouse Kiehl’s.

More than 12 million Kiehl’s sample packets and tubes are given away each year.

Fast-forward to 2000, Aaron’s daughter Jami Morse Heidegger decided to sell the business she inherited to L’Oreal for approximately $100 million. The brand had become immensely popular among fashion enthusiasts and skin-care connoisseurs worldwide and impossible for her to continue managing.

“It was like a snowball rolling downhill and just getting bigger and bigger. I created something I couldn’t control” – Jami Morse Heidegger

Jami Morse Heidegger, third-generation Kiehl’s heiress and her husband, Klaus Heidegger
Source: Retrouve

After being acquired by one of the largest cosmetics companies in the world, Kiehl’s expanded to 2,000 locations in 61 countries and was well on its way to the top of the beauty industry. What could go wrong?

The Challenge

Jami always feared her business would become a brand fighting for money, attention and space.

The thought of selling her business to L’Oreal didn’t appeal to her at first because L’Oreal had a reputation in building mass brands like Maybelline and had never managed a niche, boutique brand before.

But after it grew to a size she could no longer handle, she had no choice but to hand the brand over to a corporate looking to compete in the burgeoning specialty market.

Kiehl’s was afraid that under the management of L’Oreal, consumers would no longer view the store as independent and cutting-edge but rather as a revenue-generating corporate machine.

“[The challenge is] to grow and export the Kiehl’s way without changing it. We soon realized that we needed to stick as closely as possible to our business model on a global basis, to create a consistent Kiehl’s experience around the world,” said Kiehl’s General Manager Worldwide, Cheryl Vitali.

How were they going to keep a tight leash on L’Oreal?

Inside Kiehl’s apothecary during its early days. Source: Yahoo

The Strategy

The company didn’t want a flashy marketing budget or fancy model to be representing its brand.

“We want to keep the line [Kiehl’s] very exclusive,” said L’Oreal USA’s former chief executive, Guy Peyrelongue.

In order to appease the wishes of the Kiehl’s family, L’Oreal maintained the brand’s identity and its distribution model while ensuring its stores around the world matched the look and feel of the original apothecary in East Village.

Kiehl’s was on a mission to set strict brand boundaries for consistency and product control. And it worked.

Any one that has ever stepped into a Kiehl’s apothecary will recognize the iconic skeleton, Mr Bones, next to the famous Harley Davidson motorcycle.

“The motorcycles entertained the guys while the ladies shopped — and it was also a very clever way to introduce Kiehl’s men’s products to them,” – Chris Salgardo, president of Kiehl’s USA

Kiehl’s shops around the world look almost identical thanks to the brand’s strict guidelines. Source: Marie Claire

The brand also spends heavily on the development of products and ingredients, almost 3 to 5 times more than competitors. Its contribution to multiple charitable efforts also proved to be a successful way to hook customers to not only buy for themselves, but also feel proud to gift Kiehl’s products.

In Thailand, Kiehl’s introduced the country’s first ambassador and offered free samples together with a 5-minute consultation. Source: mThai

The company’s success in the US made global expansion a next natural step. In line with L’Oreal’s focus on digital marketing and ecommerce to capitalise growing consumption, Kiehl’s went online.

“It [online] enables us to get to know our customers better and interact more effectively with them, while remaining true to the brand’s rebellious and offbeat style” – Cheryl Vitali

By 2013, Asia had topped global sales of natural personal care products. The popularity of natural products was driven by major economic changes and rise in disposable incomes, especially among the Chinese, who had become more health-conscious.

The chart shows the sales of natural personal care products by region in 2013; Asia is the leader in sales. Source: Kiline Group

Southeast Asia also displayed the highest-growing demand for beauty and personal care causing Kiehl’s to invest heavily in performance marketing and its website with the help of ecommerce enabler and e-distributor aCommerce.

Beauty and personal care is expected to grow the most in Asia Pacific from 2016-2021. Source: Euromonitor

A fear many brand managers face is consistency across channels. How do I ensure the brand is rightfully represented at all customer touchpoints?

In the case of Kiehl’s, the company successfully projected its edgy and young vibes through bright colors and flashy images on its website in Thailand and Indonesia.

Kiehl’s website was localised for Indonesian customers.

The brand preserves its mission to make each and everyone of its customers feel good by utilizing technology. Kiehl’s recently implemented artificial intelligence and a text messaging model in its stores and online to keep customers engaged and taken care of.

“We’ve learned the first purchase happens in store, and online we’ve created tools to extend services to make a cycle,” Julia Mavrodin, Kiehl’s associate vice president of e-commerce and digital marketing said.

Through historical data collected from online orders, Kiehl’s can accurately estimate when a customer will run out of an eye cream or facial cleanser and send a text message to prompt the customer to order a new one.

A sample text message that Kiehl’s sets to keep their customers replenished with its goods. Source: Digiday

By introducing a direct channel to converse with customers, the brand is able to track where and when customers buy its products, even at partner retailers like Sephora or Nordstrom.

This allows the brand to stay top of mind and shield customers from buying unauthorized products off of e-marketplace like Amazon at the same time.

To this day, Kiehl’s has remained one of L’Oreal’s fastest growing brands and broke the symbolic $1 billion sales mark in 2016.

The Future

Kiehl’s is looking to capitalise on its brand power in new markets like the Middle East and Latin America to ultimately spread the brand’s legacy and become the number one skincare brand in the world.

“To get there we will need to pay even closer attention to our customers. After all, that has been the secret of our success for the last 160 years.”

In a not-so-shocking move last month, retail giant Target acquired a grocery delivery startup for more than half a billion dollars to better compete with Amazon in the US.

Given the latter’s influence on the state of retail over the last decade, there has been a wave of excitement and fear sweeping the industry on a global scale.

The gradual consumer preference for digital has forced traditional businesses, predominantly in developed markets, to restructure internally or shut down. Case examples include retail leaders Macy’s, Sears, and American Apparel, whose legacies are now read about in bankruptcy stories.

Today’s headlines are revealing retail behemoths getting pushed to a corner by a new breed of entrants shaking up the retail status quo with business models revolving around ecommerce, omni-channel, click and collect. These new companies also tend to execute faster, reach further and understand how to utilize the goldmine that is the internet.

But understanding that “digital disruption” or “retail innovation” is needed within a traditional corporation isn’t merely enough to bring about real change.

The speed at which businesses incorporate digital channels will determine their chances at survival and relevancy to the next generation of consumers.

But by the time they come around to asking, “am I moving fast enough to catch up to my competitors?”

It’s already too late.

Shopping sprees in the West

Companies in the US felt heat from the Amazon Effect much earlier than India or Southeast Asia did, ensuing panic in direct competitors like Walmart, Target and Home Depot and forcing them to act quickly.

In the last two years alone, large corporations like the above invested over $5 billion in acquiring digital companies to beef up their portfolios.

While most of these companies have the capacity to carve out resources to build their own ecommerce operations in house, the pace at which the internet industry moves doesn’t wait for employees to learn “Digital 101”.

Not to mention the additional pain points such as internal resistance, lack of ecommerce talent and channel conflicts. Large corporations in general tend to struggle when venturing outside of their core competencies. The quickest way to patch up your business is to buy what you don’t have.

In regards to Walmart’s total $4 billion acquisition spree,

“Walmart is buying a new consumer base — upper-middle-class people who normally wouldn’t shop at Walmart — and these new relationships would bring higher margins.” — Jim Cusson, president of retail branding agency Theory House

And the “buy what you don’t have” trend is prevalent across the industry as more traditional players gobble up digital startups. In the last eight months alone,

Walmart [retailer]: acquires Bonobos for $310 million in cash and last mile delivery startup Parcel
Sodexo [food management]: acquires majority stake in Paris-based online restaurant and food delivery startup FoodCheri
Home Depot [retailer]: acquires online business of retailer of textiles and home decor products The Company Store
FTD [flower delivery giant]: acquires on-demand flower startup BloomThat
Target [retailer]: acquires same-day delivery startup Shipt
Luxico [luxury home rentals]: acquires US-based text messaging platform for hotels Hello Scout
Albertsons [grocery retailer]: acquires meal kit company Plated
McKesson Canada [healthcare supply chain]: acquires marketplace for natural healthcare and beauty products Well.ca

“Quality exits like this don’t stem from a ‘for sale’ sign tacked to the door.” – Chris Arsenault, board member at Well.ca

Of course, the enormous price tags of these acquisitions could be spent on buffing up the in-store experience but the returns would take a long time to see whereas Target’s own online sales growth from Q1 2015 to Q3 2017 show how successful the company has been able to leverage ecommerce.

Target ecommerce growth from 2015 to 2017. Source: Bloomberg

While an acquisition may seem like a quick, easy solution, there are numerous factors to consider to avoid backlash such as price point adjustments and consistent branding. Without understanding how digital can compliment the current business model, it’s likely the new asset will simmer and die in a couple of years. Simply put, don’t buy ecommerce for ecommerce sake.

Absorbing a digital company on the other hand brings about mountains of data, new customers, a solid brand, fresh talent and a seat at the hippest place where everyone hangs out, the internet.

Movement in the ASEAN region

As with most trends, they eventually infiltrate markets on a global scale and Southeast Asia is no exception. Even a couple of years before Amazon’s lackluster entry in Singapore, a few traditional retailers took the acquisition route to capture digital opportunity early.

Sephora bought online beauty retailer Luxola in 2015, Central Group acquired fashion e-tailer Zalora Thailand in 2016 and last year announced a joint venture with Chinese internet giant JD.com.

What has driven this flurry of activity by corporations across the world?

It is avoiding what Jeff Bezos describes as “Day 2”. An idea explained nicely by Bezos in his letter to stakeholders:

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1. To be sure, this kind of decline would happen in extreme slow motion. An established company might harvest Day 2 for decades, but the final result would still come.” – Jeff Bezos

Which day does your company operate in?

Alibaba’s entry into Southeast Asia served as social proof for many entrepreneurs and businesses that they were onto something big, which led to a year of exuberance for ecommerce in the region.

“We’re just at the beginning, [the Alibaba-Lazada deal] will kickstart the whole cycle. It will attract more global investments into the region, and attract more entrepreneurs who now see this region as a great place to start a business.” — Stefan Jung, founding partner at Indonesia-based Venturra Capital in an interview with Tech in Asia

Even as we get closer to 2018, there are already numerous casualties in one of the most promising ecommerce growth markets in the world.

Alibaba doubled down on its Lazada investment by upping its share from 51 percent to 83 percent and in a push to monopolize the market, put grips on Tokopedia, arguably one of Lazada’s biggest competitors in Indonesia.

Tencent, through JD or directly, also began executing its China playbook by investing in companies like Sea, Go-Jek, Traveloka, Pomelo Fashion and Tiki.vn.

Global attention from the US came from KKR, who through Emerald Media, put $65M into ecommerce ‘arms dealer’ aCommerce in a bid to replicate Baozun’s dominance in the Chinese “TP” (Tmall Partner) landscape.

And the plays won’t stop here.

Leveraging newly consolidated positions of strength, marketplaces will cross traditional boundaries and move into areas like private label brands and offline distribution. Brands will also feel increasingly cornered, facing a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.

Those that survive 2018 will have to find a niche for themselves, such as in fashion or home, because there isn’t much room left for another horizontal ecommerce player. Others will be tempted to take risky shortcuts like say, raising money through ICOs.

2018 will also see Tencent, not Alibaba or a local company, emerge as the winner in mobile payments in Southeast Asia.

It might be a good time to start learning Chinese.

1. Plata o Plomo: Southeast Asia ecommerce will be increasingly factionalized into Alibaba and Tencent camps, and locals will pick sides

Given its similarities to China roughly 10 years ago, Southeast Asia has become a gold rush for Chinese Internet giants looking to expand beyond the mainland. It was Alibaba’s acquisition of Lazada last year that triggered an arms race between China’s #1 and #2 in Southeast Asia, and in turn, will cause local companies to choose sides.

Image source: Sohu

Alibaba also led a $1.1B investment in Tokopedia in 2017, continuing to place its biggest bets on ecommerce. Moving forward, the company is expected to position Lazada and Tokopedia as the Tmall and Taobao of Southeast Asia, respectively.

Meanwhile, Tencent has aggressively tried to replicate a three-prong formula that was successful in its fight against Alibaba in China: gaming, mobile and payments.

The first step was becoming the largest shareholder of Sea (previously Garena), predominantly a gaming powerhouse that runs Shopee, a mobile-first ecommerce marketplace and the second was placing bets on Go-Jek to become a “super app” like WeChat and WeChat Pay.

Understandable as WeChat Pay now commands an impressive 40% market share in China vs. AliPay’s 54%, up from 11% in 2015.

“Is there a land grab right now for these kind of assets? I think in the land grab they [Tencent] are following us. They are seeing that we have positioned ourselves very well, and they’re sort of playing a catch up game. So what we want to do is, since we already have our positions, is to work with local entrepreneurs.” — Joe Tsai, Alibaba Vice Chairman, in speaking with Bloomberg.

Tencent and Alibaba share price increase over last 7 years compared to Amazon and NASDAQ composite
Source: Yahoo Finance (December 4, 2017)

With both Tencent and Alibaba market caps at all-time highs, we expect this trend to continue throughout 2018 with both sides gobbling up more local companies across the ecommerce ecosystem and upping shares in existing ones.

2. Facing slow organic growth, Amazon will acquire a company to fast-track its ecommerce expansion in the emerging region

Image source: Getty Images

Amazon’s entry into “Southeast Asia” was the biggest surprise and non-surprise at the same time.

A non-surprise because Amazon’s long-awaited and rumored soft-launch into Singapore was widely covered by the media even before the company’s Prime Now services officially became available on July 26, 2017.

A surprise because Amazon’s expected tour-de-force across the region ended before it even started.

Amazon fanboys celebrated the initial launch of a scaled down, poor man’s version of Amazon — Amazon Prime Now — offering a measly one million household items and daily essentials.

“I was expecting more things that I can’t get in Singapore, for example Sriracha or something small that’s not available in Singapore but most stuff on Prime Now are basic things you can get from Fairprice…” — Reddit User Ticklishcat

But there’s good reason for it.

It doesn’t make sense for Amazon to set up a full-blown local presence in the country-state. Singaporeans, under the Free AmazonGlobal Saver Shipping option, were already enjoying free international shipping from Amazon en masse for orders over US$125.

The country ranks #29 in terms of session/year to Amazon.com on a global scale but #4 when normalized for population size. With an average of 14.04 sessions per person per year visiting Amazon.com, Singapore takes the top spot among all the countries in Asia.

Singaporeans already buying from Amazon, without the latter’s full-fledged local presence: Singapore ranking only #29 in traffic to Amazon.com but #4 when normalized for population size (#1 in Asia)

Source: SimilarWeb, World Bank

The launch of Amazon Prime in Singapore earlier this month makes it even less likely for the firm to set up local operations beyond Amazon Prime Now. Amazon is no longer subsidizing the original free shipping for orders above US$125 to Singapore and Singaporean Prime members have free international delivery only on orders above S$60 on Amazon’s US website for S$8.99 per month in addition to other benefits.

Not much else has been heard about the company’s further expansion into the region, particularly Indonesia and Thailand, where markets are being rapidly carved up by Alibaba and Tencent.

With time running out for a full-fledged, organic entry into the high-growth markets of Southeast Asia, its stock trading at all-time highs, and not too distant memories of failure in China, we expect Amazon to attempt at least one major acquisition in 2018 to accelerate regional expansion.

3. Offline is the new online: pure-play ecommerce to launch physical stores to offset rising online customer acquisition costs and improve last-mile fulfillment

While traditional offline retailers like Central in Thailand and Matahari in Indonesia scrambled to move business online, online pure-play ecommerce is expected to make moves offline.

With online customer acquisition channels like Google and Facebook rapidly reaching saturation and diminishing returns, ecommerce players like Pomelo and Lazada will look to offline channels to reach new customers.

Pomelo dabbled in offline over the last few years but, fresh off a $19M Series B, recently launched its biggest pop-up to date in Siam Square, the fashion center of Bangkok. The store applies “click-and-collect”, enabling customers to order online and try items in store before deciding which ones to keep or return.

Image source: Pomelo

“In fashion, the number one barrier to purchase is still the need to try product on for fit coupled with the hassle of returns. An offline footprint addresses this barrier head on. Additionally customers can be acquired offline and data from online can be used to drive higher sales and greater operational efficiencies offline. In short, a mix of offline and online is the optimal strategy for fashion retail going forward.” — David Jou, Co-Founder and CEO, Pomelo Fashion

Love Bonito, another online-first fashion brand from Singapore, officially launched its permanent flagship store at Orchard Road after seven years of being an ecommerce pure-play.

Image source: Love Bonito

Lazada, on the other hand, may follow Alibaba’s moves in China where the ecommerce juggernaut launched Hema supermarkets in Beijing and Shanghai. In addition to reinforcing a positive brand experience and customer acquisition, these new offline stores serve as fulfillment centers, effectively making up for Southeast Asia’s lack of logistics infrastructure.

Alibaba’s Hema supermarkets in China. Image source: Quartz

Lazada Group CEO Max Bittner already hinted at the possibility physical stores in Indonesia at a conference earlier this year.

Over the last decade in China, Alibaba rode 50%+ year-on-year ecommerce growth to become what it is today, however, as maturation slows, Alibaba has doubled-down on initiatives like Single’s Day (11.11), “New Retail” (smart pop-up stores around China), and market expansion to accelerate sales (Southeast Asia).

Despite the region being projected as the next big ecommerce growth story, online accounts for only 1-2% of total retail today. If companies like Lazada and Shopee want to grow faster than the market allows, going offline will be the obvious choice.

4. New ecommerce startups will use ICOs to raise funding to battle giants

With Southeast Asia increasingly being carved up by giants such as Alibaba and Tencent in a presumed winner-takes-all-market, smaller ecommerce startups will look at alternative ways to finance themselves.

Enter newly hyped Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs).

Raising funds through these means in Southeast Asia was pioneered by Omise, a fintech startup based in Thailand, that successfully raised $25M in a few hours to develop a decentralized payment system.

Given early speculation of Amazon moving into the cryptocurrency space, we’ll have fertile ground for our first Southeast Asian ecommerce ICO. Already a start up called HAMSTER is selling HMT tokens to develop a decentralized marketplace that promises “no fees, no brokers”.

Revolutionary ecommerce platform funded by ICOs or ponzi scheme?

Expect ecommerce startups to use ICOs to fund customer acquisition, new product development, and inventory financing. That is, until the bubble bursts

5. A final wave of ecommerce consolidation sweeps through as local players adjust to a New World Order

We’ve shared numerous stories of casualties and consolidation during the Southeast Asian ecommerce bloodbath in our previous annual predictions.

Japan’s Rakuten sold off most of its assets in the region when it retreated in 2015/2016. Rocket Internet dumped Zalora Thailand and Vietnam in a fire sale in 2016 and sold its Phillipines entity to local conglomerate Ayala Group the year after.

In Thailand, Ascend Group put its assets WeLoveShopping and WeMall on life support to focus on fintech.

In Indonesia, reports surfaced of SK Planet selling its Elevenia shares to Indonesian conglomerate Salim Group, which was quickly followed by news of its Malaysian entity up for bid between Alibaba and JD.

Earlier in the year, Indonesia’s second largest telco Indosat Ooredoo shut down its ecommerce website Cipika. Alfamart, Indonesia’s second largest convenience store chain also had to downsize operations to pivot its ecommerce initiative Alfacart away from a general marketplace play towards an online grocery channel.

Come 2018, all eyes will be on the health of remaining bastions of home-grown, horizontal ecommerce plays. As Alibaba and Tencent up the ante, there will definitely be more casualties in the new year.

6. Go-Pay will venture outside of Indonesia through Sea, Traveloka and JD to become the WeChat Pay of Southeast Asia

Indonesia’s ecommerce today is like what China was in 2008 — the pace of change is unimaginable. When I visited our office in Jakarta 12 months ago, hardly anyone was using Go-Jek’s mobile payment platform and wallet, Go-Pay.

Returning six months later, almost all of my colleagues used Go-Pay to transfer money peer-to-peer and pay for products and services.

In most of emerging Southeast Asia (excl. Singapore and Malaysia), credit card penetration rates are in low single digits and most people don’t even have a bank account.

Source: Global Findex, World Bank

Unfortunately, few fintech and payment startups in the region have created products to address the lack of credit cards and large unbanked population. Instead, the majority happily build payment gateways and e-wallets that rely on existing and legacy credit card infrastructure like in the US (Apple Pay anyone?).

It’s no wonder cash-on-delivery (COD) still makes up over 70% of all processed transactions according to data by ecommerceIQ.

Those that do focus on mobile wallets topped up with cash like Thailand’s True Money struggle to achieve sustainable “core product value” and reach mass.

“Community, Commerce, and Payments are inter-connected in the Digital World. Thus far, all successful mobile payment plays, globally, are centered on the commerce and community axis. PayPal started with eBay, Alipay with Alibaba/TMall/Taobao, WeChat Pay leveraged WeChat/QQ, and Amazon Pay has Amazon. Due to this very reason, standalone payments/wallet business will struggle.” — Gaurav Sharma, Founder at Atlantis Capital

Go-Pay addresses these fundamental issues by allowing users to send payments peer-to-peer (P2P) and top up by giving cash to Go-Jek drivers who act like mobile ATM machines.

Top up your Go Pay mobile wallet by handing cash to a Go-Jek driver

More importantly, with Go-Jek being part of the Tencent faction, we expect the company to push Go-Pay into other Southeast Asian countries through its community and commerce platforms such as Sea (Garena, Shopee, etc.), Traveloka and JD.

Following rumors in November, Go-Jek finally announced its acquisition of Kartuku, Mapan and Midtrans. The latter, being one of Indonesia’s top online payment gateways, will give Go-Pay additional distribution channels and use cases such as Matahari Mall, Tokopedia and Garuda Indonesia, pushing it beyond the realm of P2P into B2C payments.

A strong contender for the “WeChat of Southeast Asia” is Grab, whose 2.5 million daily rides makes it the largest ride-hailing platform in Southeast Asia. GrabPay, launched this year, is Grab’s effort to move Singapore towards a cashless society, with plans to expand across the region in 2018.

Should Go-Jek be worried? Not really.

Singapore is not the ideal test-bed to launch a mobile wallet because the country already has an ubiquitous cashless payment platform called “credit cards”. And GrabPay’s recent partnership in Indonesia with Lippo Group’s Ovo hasn’t garnered much attention or presented wide use cases.

“While it might seem like common wisdom to first test (an idea) in Singapore, and then take it regionally and to the world, with all due respect to the government, I think it doesn’t make sense in today’s world.” — Min-Liang Tan, Co-Founder and CEO of Razer

Go-Pay, on the other hand, is adding value to users in a country where only 36% have bank accounts and 2% have credit cards. Emerging markets like Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines have a similar (lack of) financial infrastructure as Indonesia.

Go-Jek, by being part of the Tencent faction, has access to a much more diversified distribution channel and offers a variety of common day-to-day use cases such as gaming (Garena), shopping (Sea, JD), travel (Traveloka) and pretty much everything else (Go-Jek itself).

7. New mobile-first fashion and beauty marketplaces will fill void left by Zalora

Zalora, Rocket Internet’s once star fashion ecommerce venture, has struggled in Southeast Asia since launching in 2012. Zalora Thailand and Vietnam were picked up by Thai retail conglomerate Central Group for pennies on the dollar while the Philippines entity was partially sold off to the Ayala real estate group.

There were even rumors of Zalora Indonesia exiting to local retailer MAP, which were swiftly denied.

A few factors contributed to the company’s difficulties: 1. Price and product variety competition with merchants selling on Facebook, Instagram and LINE, 2. Control of brands by one or two retail conglomerates like Central in Thailand, MAP in Indonesia, and SSI Group in the Philippines.

These two factors made it difficult for Zalora to pivot to an ASOS-style premium brand marketplace.

A shell of its former self, Zalora’s challenges left a void that is increasingly being filled by more nimble, mobile-first fashion marketplaces that see an opportunity in a space dominated by mass-market, general ecommerce platforms like Lazada and Shopee.

As evident from Amazon’s struggle to court premium fashion brands in the US, luxury brands don’t like to sell on mass platforms, where merchandise shows up beside detergent and washing machines.

“After purchasing Whole Foods, Amazon now has access to the wealthiest refrigerators in the country but they still can’t get into our closets because the aspirational beauty and fashion brands don’t want to distribute on their platform. Why? Because they don’t have their heads up their ass and realize that Amazon partners with brands the way a virus partners with its host.” — Scott Galloway, L2 Founder and NYU Stern Professor

Over in China, both Tmall and JD had to exert a Herculean effort to attract fashion brands. In October, JD launched TopLife, a standalone online luxury platform to provide a high-end experience that high-end brands promise. Alibaba also launched Luxury Pavilion, a section within Tmall tailored to luxury brands like Burberry and Hugo Boss.

Spearheading a new wave of mobile-centric Southeast Asian fashion marketplaces are Zilingo, fresh off an $18M Series B, and Goxip, a Hong Kong based startup that recently completed a $5M Series A with plans to enter Thailand. In Indonesia, there’s LYKE, ironically founded by the ex-Zalora CMO.

With the benefits of hindsight and understanding of the importance of social commerce on driving fashion, these emerging players will offer elements like chat, content and an influencer network to offset some of the customer acquisition cost challenges inherent in scaling ecommerce.

8. Marketplaces will grow up and clean up ‘grey market’ for blue-chip and luxury brands

Over the last six years, most of the region’s initial ecommerce growth was focused on driving GMV by tapping into any merchant and brand willing to sell online.

In 2018, marketplaces like Lazada and Shopee will continue to attempt to onboard bigger global brands but their success will require them to control grey market sellers and counterfeit goods in order to cultivate an environment in which blue-chip brands will feel comfortable selling.

Alibaba went through the same process in China when discussions surrounding counterfeits and grey market goods on Tmall and Taobao peaked around the company’s IPO in 2014.

Based on data provided by marketplace analytics platform BrandIQ, 80% of SKUs from consumer product giants like Unilever, Samsung, and L’Oreal on average are sold by unauthorized, grey market resellers. These grey market SKUs are sold at a price 30% lower than official flagship stores and authorized resellers.

Why all the fuss? Because grey market sales impact the image of brands selling in official stores.

“Lately, the explosion of third-party sellers on the site has led to authentic goods from companies such as Nike, Chanel, The North Face, Patagonia and Urban Decay being sold on Amazon even though they don’t authorize the sales, undercutting their grip on pricing and distribution,” said the Wall Street Journal.

Nike, for example, refused to sell directly to Amazon for a long time, fearing it would undermine its brand. But by not selling on marketplace creates space that will be quickly filled by grey market, unauthorized third-party resellers looking for arbitrage opportunities as seen from the previous BrandIQ data.

Customers buying from these grey market resellers perceive this as buying from the brand itself and, when having a poor customer experience, end up blaming the brand rather than the unauthorized reseller.

BrandIQ data shows that the average rating for grey market SKUs are 24% lower than reviews for similar products sold through the official shop-in-shop or flagship store.

We’ll see a push from the marketplace and brands to address grey market sales in Southeast Asia in 2018. Marketplaces will employ a tighter grip on third-party resellers in order to attract better brands, while brands will set up an official presence on marketplaces as a way to pro-actively manage the customer experience and brand image.

9. Marketplaces and e-tailers will introduce its own private label products and alienate brands

As the ecommerce market in Southeast Asia matures and consolidates, marketplaces, e-tailers and ecommerce startups will be increasingly scrutinized for margin growth. Gone are the days of aggressive top line growth and market share grabs at all cost.

With Lazada post-Alibaba acquisition and Shopee post-IPO (as part of Sea), what other value-added services will these companies tap into for sustainable revenue growth?

In this instance, companies in Southeast Asia have taken a cue from the China playbook. Lazada launched a Lazada Marketing Solutions unit to monetize its 23M active annual customers through advertising similar to how Tmall and Taobao charge for ads in China.

Today, Lazada offers display ads and programmatic promoted product ads to its customers but is expected to launch pay-per-click search ads in 2018 competing with Google, Facebook and similar networks out there. Across the region, Shopee has already launched pay-per-click search ads.

Beyond advertising, we can expect more marketplaces and e-tailers to follow Amazon’s foray into private label brands to boost margins. With the data collected from selling third-party brands, these ecommerce platforms know exactly what kind of products sell best, to whom, at what time and where.

Flipkart, one of India’s top marketplaces competing with Amazon, recently announced its aim for 20-22% sales contribution from private labels in the next five years.

“When we first decided to foray into private labels in mid-2016, a ‘Tiger Team,’ for private labels was created internally to research 50-odd retailers around the world, including Europe, the US, China and India, to envisage what the private label landscape would look like for Flipkart over the next few years. Research revealed that private labels can contribute 10-20 percent of the company’s business. For instance, US-based Costco Wholesale’s private label brand Kirkland contributes 20-25 percent of its business,” said Adarsh Menon, Flipkart’s Head of Private Labels in an interview with The Hindu.

Launching private label brands in Southeast Asia isn’t something new. Zalora launched its own fashion label called EZRA as early as 2013 followed by Lazada’s LZD Premium Collection in 2014. With the focus on top line growth in the period of 2013-2016, private label brands have taken a backseat as seen from the limited number of them listed today on Zalora and Lazada.

Althea, a Korean beauty e-retailer that recently raised a $7M Series B, specifically said to be using the new funds to launch more private label products.

Althea private label product sold on their website

“Based on the vast amount of user data that we have gathered… we are now able to understand the specific needs of our customers in each market, garner feedback almost instantly through our online platforms, and quickly turn that into a product within a month or two,” said Althea Co-Founder and CEO Frank Kang. “We have deep insights into our customer base that traditional brands simply cannot match.”

In light of all this, it’s not surprising Zalora has expressed renewed interest in pushing its own private labels, “Something Borrowed” and “Zalora”, for the new year.

10. B2B ecommerce to disrupt offline distributors, blurring lines between online and offline distribution

Despite the rosy outlook for ecommerce in Southeast Asia, the reality is that B2C ecommerce today is still in the low single digit percentages. Given aggressive growth targets, brands, marketplaces and e-tailers will increasingly look toward non-B2C channels such as B2B and B2E (Business-to-Employee) channels for revenue.

Zilingo, the Sequoia-backed fashion marketplace, launched its Zilingo Asia Mall B2B marketplace to allow fashion buyers in the US and Europe buy Zilingo merchandise at wholesale prices, effectively creating an “Alibaba” for fashion.

Shopee launched a wholesale feature earlier this year, allowing merchants to set lower unit prices for larger order quantities.

 

Shopee Malaysia offering wholesale feature

aCommerce, Southeast Asia’s ecommerce enabler and e-distributor, fresh off a $65M Series B from KKR-backed Emerald Media, coined a new term for all this — “B2A” or Business-to-All.

The company is behind the B2B and B2E initiatives for brands like Samsung and L’Oreal. According to the company, B2B ecommerce now contributes to 30% of total revenues at aCommerce, up from 10% a year earlier (disclaimer, I work here).

Written by: Sheji Ho, aCommerce Group Chief Marketing Officer

Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

End of year is always the busiest time for the retail industry as businesses expect spikes in sales volumes before the official holidays start.

For online players, this period has resulted in some of the most famous annual holiday shopping events such as Cyber Monday, Alibaba’s Single’s Day, and Southeast Asia’s Online Revolution.

In Southeast Asia, the holiday period holds even more significance for ecommerce players as 40% of their sales are generated during the last three months of the year.

eMarketer expects holiday ecommerce sales in the US to jump 16.6% year on year (YoY) in 2017 driven by mobile commerce and competition created by large retailers and digital marketplaces.

Holiday sales Southeast Asia

At least four top marketplaces in Indonesia are holding a shopping event on November 11 (11/11).

In a recent survey conducted by BigCommerce involving 1,000+ brands operating online in the US, around 50% modestly expect up to a 25% sales increase compared to the holiday period last year.

5.4% of businesses expect more than 100% of sales increase. Source: BigCommerce

Some have aimed even higher for good reason.

15.5% of businesses surveyed expect a more than 50% of sales increase during this sales period — even as much as more than 100% sales increase compared to last year. Why?

According to Deloitte, online channels will capture 51% of US consumer budgets this holiday.

With higher sales targets comes more preparation to ensure each part of the ecommerce value chain is ready to handle possible concerns mainly regarding sufficient inventory (50.63%) and delivery expectation (45%).

To full proof operations, over 37% of businesses in the US started planning for this year’s holiday season 1 – 4 months earlier than they did last year.

3.14% of respondents are actually participating in holiday ecommerce sales for the first time. Source: BigCommerce

A lot of preparation is placed during the last few months leading up to the sales event, which for Southeast Asia is coming as soon as this weekend — November 11.

If we look to Southeast Asia, the region has its own holiday mega-sales to prepare for – 11.11 and 12.12 – where order volumes can uplift by almost 300%.

Is Southeast Asia ready for the holiday rush?

The ecommerce markets in US and Southeast Asia draw many similarities. For one, mobile commerce has driven the region’s retail growth for the last two years given the mobile-first behavior of its young population.

There is also enough competition to drive prices down (to ridiculous amounts) and incentivise consumers to shop. Taking a quick glance at advertisements from popular e-marketplaces such as Lazada and Shopee indicate the amount of money being invested to capture consumer holiday spending.

Marketing of end year mega-sales in Southeast Asia. Source: Rappler (left), Shopee Singapore Facebook page (right)

Is your company ready?

Download the Holiday Ecommerce Sales Checklist here.

Voice has always been a compelling way to activate certain human behaviors. It can stir women to distrust men based on voice pitch, it can soothe a crying baby, and now it’s being utilized to making shopping easier.

Well, that’s the hope.

Voice commerce is the new trend in online shopping that is piquing the interest of major players such as Google and Walmart. The two giants recently announced a one-month partnership to take on Amazon’s current dominance in the voice-shopping market.

Consumers in the US will be able to purchase any Walmart product through Google’s voice-activated assistant platform.

“For example, if you order Tide Pods or Gatorade, your Google Assistant will let you know which size and type you previously ordered from Walmart, making it easy for you to buy the right product again,” says Sridhar Ramaswamy, senior vice-president of ads & commerce at Google.

Walmart’s Head of Ecommerce Marc Lore shared that the retailer plans to expand the use of voice-activated shopping across its 4,700 stores to “create customer experiences that don’t currently exist within voice shopping anywhere else”.

To understand what currently exists and whether investing in voice-commerce makes sense, one must look to ecommerce giant Amazon and its strategy surrounding AI assistant Alexa.

Leading voice commerce, Amazon, of course

This year’s Prime Day, Amazon’s largest shopping event for its Prime members, happened on July 10 and theEcho Dotwas the best-selling product across any category globally, with customers purchasing seven times more of these devices this year than in 2016.

What are owners using Alexa to do?

Alexa Amazon Commerce

Alexa is typically being used to play music and set alarms/timers. Source: LivePerson

Amazon used Prime Day as a vehicle to increase its foothold in voice and offered premiums to influence a wave of shoppers to purchase these cylinder-shaped units. They included:

  • Voice shoppers had early access to select Prime Day deals a full two hours before the general public beginning
  • More than 100 Alexa exclusive deals were already available
  • First-time voice-shopping customers who purchased with Alexa before Prime Day received a $10 promo code
  • Amazon device owners could sign up for Prime via voice command. New members who signed up for Prime by voice got their first year of membership for $79, a $20 saving

LivePerson, a cloud-based software platform, surveyed over 500 Alexa owners in the US and discovered the following:

  • A significant majority (70.6%) of respondents have made a purchase on Amazon through an Alexa voice command at least once
Alexa Amazon Commerce

Electronics are the most popular category purchased through Alexa. Source: LivePerson

  • 45.8% of Alexa owners are repeat shoppers (meaning that, of consumers who give Alexa shopping a try once, almost two thirds turn into repeat users)
  • 70.6% of Alexa owners have an Amazon Prime account

By 2020, it’s projected that Amazon will sell 41.3 million of Echo units (each one retails for about $44.99). Having a physical presence in the household of many Americans gives Amazon a new channel of power.

Professor Scott Galloway of L2 placed an order for batteries on Alexa and discovered that the assistant would only recommend Amazon label products. Without the visual cue of product discovery, Alexa can strongly influence consumer buying decisions.

The voice trend has become so irresistible that even General Electric plans to soon sell a LED lamp with Alexa built in so consumers without an Echo can ask questions for information. Some food for thought.

Here’s ecommerce news you should know:

1. Six out of 10 Filipino prefers e-payment than cash

In the recent survey conducted by global payment company Visa, Filipino showed a big improvement on the electronic payment system.

Six out of the 10 respondents said they prefer electronic payments rather than paying in cash. 71% of Filipino also shop online at least once a month.

The survey was done online and participated in equally by about 3,000 persons aged 18-55 years old from six Asian countries namely the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Read the full story here.

2. Google is testing a data-friendly version of its mobile app

The lite version, which essentially a modified version of the Google search app, will be optimized for those using poor quality connection, with limited mobile data allocations, or in possession of a smartphone with little internal memory.

The search company is currently piloting such version in Indonesia.

Beyond the apps, Google also putting serious focus on developing services that are optimized for emerging markets, including the lightweight version of Android, Android Go.

Read the full story here.

3. Recommended reading: Alibaba is a better investment than Amazon

Despite Amazon’s strong growth of over 30% with its stock bouncing around $1000, an analyst said Alibaba would make a better investment than Amazon, as the Chinese company sees its revenues increased from $992 million in 2011 to $23.5 billion in 2017.

Read the full story here.