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One hundred two billion dollars. That’s how much the value of ecommerce in Southeast Asia is estimated to exceed by 2025.

The latest e-Conomy of Southeast Asia report by Google and Singapore-based Temasek confirmed the growing confidence among investors in the region. Startups raised $9.1 billion in the first half of last year, almost as much as throughout the whole of 2017.

2018 was dubbed as the year of ecommerce for the region, so what can we expect in 2019? We speak to industry leaders to discover the anticipated trends for online retailers and brands in Southeast Asia.

1. Brands Shift Their Focus from Data Gathering to Data Utilization

The biggest differentiator between online and offline retail is the ability to track, collect, monitor, and manage information, all in real time.

Through online channels, brands are able to access customer data through chats, social media, and their own websites. This information can be used to devise online strategies. Globally, 73% of brands plan to allocate their ecommerce budget on data & analytics services in 2019.

However, despite the general agreement of its importance, many brands still have no concept of how to utilize data to their advantage.

“Even today, not all retailers have embraced data fully to the point where they think of themselves as data companies, and this might be why many companies are suffering.” Harvard Business School Professor Srikant M. Datar.

Data collection is easy but having and optimizing the analytics capability to use it is a completely different ball game.

A survey by ecommerceIQ identified data analysis as one of the most difficult skills to find among the digital talents in Southeast Asia. Brands are constantly searching for data aggregators to consolidate information into one place for convenient retrieval and use to target, retarget, and personalize products and services.

Reagan Chai, Head of Regional Business Intelligence and Business Development at Shopee told ecommerceIQ that data acquisition enables the company to map out and optimize buyer and seller user experience while pre-empting customer demand and anticipating future potential. The company has seen an increase in website traffic in the past year that even surpasses the other regional players.

In China, Alibaba and JD.com have taken this a step further by utilizes the data gathered online to improve inventories and experiences at their physical stores. Alibaba Chief Marketing Officer, Chris Tung said the company wants to help brands find the right consumers by tracking them throughout Alibaba’s system.

“We’re finding all data that has to do with people, their behavior, what they like, what they buy and binding this online data to real people,” concluded Chris.

Seeing the need, regional brand ecommerce enabler aCommerce launched a data analytics platform BrandIQ last year to enhance their capabilities as a data partner to help brands centralize their customer data and offer customized products or services to each target group.

The capabilities of BrandIQ that aim to enhance brands’ performance on online marketplace; BrandIQ

This leaves brands with two options: find an economical way to utilize the data or continue looking for a needle in a haystack.

2. Social Commerce Channels are Brands’ New Sales Outlets

Social commerce in this region boomed before the rise of ecommerce as we know now.

Facebook groups have long established as an online space where people connect to buy and sell goods, even before the launched of Marketplace feature. The social media’s rapid growth in Southeast Asia is propelled by mobile adoption and smartphone, where 90% of the online population access the internet via smartphones. For some, Facebook even defines the internet itself.

With multitudes of potential customers gathered in social media platforms, brands naturally espied alternative sales channels. Following Facebook’s footsteps, social platforms like Instagram and Pinterest have also developed their own shoppable features.

“Brands will miss out if they don’t have a social media presence. The best way to get feedback from consumers is by having a direct conversation,” Deb Liu, Vice President, Facebook Marketplace told Forbes.

LINE recently acquired a social commerce management startup Sellsuki in Thailand, where it has the second biggest user base, to build a strong foundation for its ecommerce business. The company has also formed a joint venture with three local banks to offer personalized loans to SMEs.

A few big brands like L’Oreal have already equipped their social media page with ‘Shop’ feature that allows consumers to purchase the order directly on the page and it’s only a matter of time before more brands activate the platforms as one their sales channels and remove another layer between them and the consumers.

Consumers can purchase L’Oreal products on their Facebook page assisted through the Messenger app until the checking out process; L’Oreal Thailand.

3. E-Marketplaces Launch New Services to Differentiate

Looking at the successful existing ecommerce players in more developed markets, one key success factor they share is the various services rolled out on their fully-controlled supply chain.

JD.com’s investment to the development of their own supply chain allows them to scale their technology and offer Retail-as-a-Service proposition to help other retailers or brands sell online. Alibaba is unrivaled on its extensive ecosystem beyond commerce, including a logistics network Cainiao, a payment firm Ant Financial, not to mention its recent foray into the entertainment industry.

The same practice has infiltrated down to Southeast Asia. Lazada has strengthened its logistics arm FBL (Fulfilled by Lazada) post the acquisition, and although no concrete plans have been disclosed, Shopee has expressed the intention to build its own logistics network.

Singapore’s Qoo10 is set to launch its blockchain-based ecommerce site QuuBee this year, leveraging the blockchain technology to eliminate the transaction and listing fee which in turn increase the retailers’ profit margin and make a more sustainable commerce approach.

In Indonesia, Tokopedia is set to offer “Infrastructure-As-a-Service” with the fresh $1.1 billion funding. They also plan to use AI for customer care services and to run credit checks on merchants seeking loans to expand their businesses.

The practice is not exclusively done by the general e-marketplaces. Fashion e-marketplace Zilingo scored $226 million in funding due to their new focus to build a network of fashion supply chain that anyone, small merchants or big retailers, can tap into.

“It’s imperative for us to build products that introduce machine learning and data science effectively to SMEs while also being easy to use, get adopted and scale quickly. We’re re-wiring the entire supply chain with that lens so that we can add the most value,” revealed Zilingo CTO Dhruv Kapoor to TechCrunch.

Facebook is also showing more intention to jump into the bandwagon that is the region’s ecommerce. The social network has launched Marketplace feature in Thailand and Singapore without much fanfare, but the recent partnership with Kasikorn Bank in Thailand to allow in-app payment feature might be the start of the company’s effort to bulk up its commerce capabilities and cater to those that utilized the platform for their business.

Facebook partners with Thailand’s Kasikorn Bank to enable transfers and card payments on chats from Facebook Messenger; Facebook

 

In a bid to recruit more brands to sell on their platforms, we anticipate that e-marketplaces will continue to go head-to-head with each other through new services, acquisitions, and partnerships. Ready to burn more cash to win in this battle, e-marketplaces?

4. Brands to Reinforce Reviews and Fund User-Generated Content to Win Ecommerce Consumers

E-marketplaces in Southeast Asia has been upscaling and building add-ons which provide consumers with the utmost convenience. The search for better technology and assistance for the consumers is constant and never-ending.

Lazada introduces AI-powered image search feature onto its platform which allows shoppers to take a picture of an item and the platform will suggest similar items available; LiveatPC

Online consumers begin their online purchasing journeys by searching for product information or reading reviews, usually on the e-marketplace platforms, before making their purchase decision. They are looking for real opinions and user-generated reviews to validate the products.

The habit of leaving product reviews on ecommerce platform is not as common in Southeast Asia as it is in the US — Amazon even have dedicated page for top reviewers — and when they do, the reviews usually left little information about the product and more about the other aspect of the purchase (i.e. delivery time, packaging, etc).

Platforms like ReviewIQ are used by brands to increase their ratings and reviews engagement on their e-marketplace listings to help boost consumers make their decision. While the use of chatbots is an increasingly popular solution to help smooth the online customer experience, it’s more suitable for generic questions such as “where is my order?” or “is this product available?” instead of personalised questions such as “will this lipstick look good on a yellow-undertone skin?”.

Community-crowd model like one that’s popular with travel platforms such as Airbnb might also be suitable for ecommerce in the region to help consumers get passed their apprehension with online shopping — something that Edouard Steinert, aCommerce Thailand’s Director of Channel Management, is investigating to help the company’s clients as this model has shown to save time, increase results, and keep costs low.

“Consumers today want to hear genuine feedback and reviews about a product and become more averse to hard-sell methods. [User-generated] Reviews, especially from people who share the same passion with them, proved to drive better conversion for the brand,” added Edouard Steinert.

5. Brands Employ Direct-to-Consumer strategies to Acquire Direct Consumer Data

89% of companies are now competing mostly on a customer experience playing field and the Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) approach is becoming more important for brands as it allows them to gain insights into their end users and anticipate their needs.

One trend observed among brands to promote DTC is ecommerce subscription. From a consumer perspective, subscription offers a convenient, personalized, and often cheaper way to buy what they need. For brands, it’s a subtle method to create customer loyalty in the digital landscape.

One brand adopting subscription ecommerce in the region is Nescafe Dolce Gusto, offering free coffee machines in exchange for a minimum 12-month subscription. Besides witnessing sales growth, Nescafe Dolce Gusto also noticed that consumers continued to purchase goods from its brand despite dropping out of the subscription plan.

“They may have dropped out of the subscription but not the brand. They still buy capsules from different channels; ecommerce website, online marketplaces, and supermarkets. A subscription strategy is not just a long-term consumption enabler but also a consumer acquisition channel for the whole brand,” Bhuree Ackarapolpanich, Brand Director & Digital Expert at Nescafé Dolce Gusto.

aCommerce’s Regional Director of Project Management, Mandy Arbilo said that e-sampling is a popular strategy employed by brands to evaluate the demand, especially ecommerce.

While normal sampling techniques used by offline retailers are expensive, e-sampling saves brands up to 40% as well as providing essentials customer data.

Mars Petcare is one of the e-sampling pioneers for aCommerce. The campaign prompted up to 25% of pet owners to try Pedigree as the main meal; aCommerce

As DTC becomes widely adopted, consumers will see brands coming up with attractive gimmicks using digital tools to gain insights and entice consumers to spend more on their brands.

6. 2019 Will Finally see Regulation of Ecommerce across the Region

Ecommerce practice in the region has remained largely unregulated as a nascent occurrence. As the industry grows, it is only a matter of time until governments step in to tax this fast-growing segment and level the playing field for foreign companies to offer digital services and goods locally.

News of the implementation of ecommerce tax regulations in Southeast Asian countries has been floating around since the beginning of last year but nothing concrete has as yet materialized.

A couple of months ago, Economic Ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed an agreement to facilitate cross-border ecommerce transactions within the region.

However, while nothing has written in stone, predictions abound concerning the impacts of ecommerce tax on imported goods into the region. In Indonesia and Thailand, ecommerce tax is predicted to bolster the growth of social commerce because, unlike marketplaces, they are uncontrolled.

“If tax regulations restrict ecommerce platforms, making selling in Bukalapak complicated, there will be an exodus of people who prefer selling on Instagram and Facebook. These platforms are uncontrolled and not chased for tax because they sell through the back door,” Bukalapak co-founder and Chief Financial Officer Muhamad Fajrin Rasyid.

Singapore might also see a decrease in cross-border shopping as prices increase with the introduction of Goods and Service Tax (GST) on ecommerce goods and services from overseas. Currently, 89% of all cross-border transactions in the Asia Pacific region are conducted by Singaporeans.

A snapshot of the state of ecommerce tax regulations across six major Southeast Asian markets; ecommerceIQ

Looking at another high-potential ecommerce market, India introduces the new e-marketplace laws that indicate the prohibition of marketplace “owners” to sell products on their own marketplace through vendor entities in which they have an equity interest. It also prevents marketplaces to make deals with sellers that grants the marketplace exclusivity rights on the product. Could we see such laws be applied in Southeast Asia?

Regardless, brands will have very little influence on how the new tax policies take root but they will be behooved to anticipate the ruling and adjust online strategy accordingly to mitigate the impact of a shift in customer behavior. This ASEAN agreement will encourage more local entrepreneurs to create new products and venture online to access a larger and more diverse market. Brands will now need to be nimble and innovative to adapt to local nuances and preferences.

7. Grab and Go-Jek Challenge Logistics Providers to Capture Ecommerce and Online Food Delivery

Since Uber’s exit last March, Grab monopoly in countries like Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia has led to complaints about services and prices increased which resulted in protests from consumers and fines from governments which hit the headlines of the Filipino newspapers and Singaporean watchdogs.

But with the recent regional expansion from Indonesia’s Go-Jek, the competition between the two will only get fiercer. Go-Jek has successfully carved its existence in Vietnam, Singapore, and Thailand last year alone. In addition, Grab’s competitor in Malaysia, Dacsee, has also expressed the plan of expanding to Thailand.

Both companies are not racing to be the best ride-hailing providers, they’re aiming for something much bigger; super apps. Go-Jek has secured $1 billion funds from Google, Tencent, and JD.com in part of their plan to raise $2 billion for this venture. Meanwhile, Grab recently nabbed $200 million investment from Thailand’s Central Group, boosting their valuation to 11 billion to date.

2019 will see these two competitors steer toward the same goal of food and ecommerce delivery. Google and Temasek reported that the online food delivery business grew 73% CAGR in 2019. By 2025, they predict online food delivery growth at 36% CAGR with online transport only 23%.

Market size of the ride-hailing industry in Southeast Asia; e-Conomy SEA 2018 Report by Google and Temasek

“We will be expanding our GrabFood and delivery business and deepening our relationships with restaurant merchants and key partners in some markets,” said Grab’s head of regional operations Russell Cohen.

Same-day delivery providers are going to feel more competition next year. The impact of Grab and Go-Jek on market vibes will definitely raise the bar for the logistics and delivery sector.

8. Brands and Retailers will Double Down on Omnichannel is Southeast Asia’s Preference over Pure-Play Ecommerce

The omnichannel shopping experience is not a new concept, but companies do have diverse interpretations of the concept. Headlines revealed that online retail behemoths, such as Amazon and Alibaba, are moving into physical retail.

The main reason why Alibaba ventured out of online space reflects its determination to solve core problems of the shopping experience, such as scattered operations and lack of payment transparency.

JD.com pipped Alibaba for once by opening the first unmanned convenience store in the region in Jakarta to leverage the enormous database by offering beneficial insights to brands such as the best products to stock and advertise. Through their JV with Central Group in Thailand, JD Central also planning a similar launch in the country by 2020.

Inside JD.ID X Mart in Indonesia. It is JD.com’s first unmanned store outside of China and it is a demonstration of JD.com’s mission to implement RaaS; Food Navigator Asia

Pure-play ecommerce retailers and brands recognized drawbacks in online marketing channels with fragmented infrastructure and a limited pool of shoppers. They promoted offline as an attractive option to push sales growth.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, companies are slowly but surely adopting this strategy across all categories. Ecommerce fashion players like Thailand’s Pomelo and Singapore’s Love, Bonito have opened physical stores in their respective countries.

In 2018, Pomelo opened 5 new outlets, embarking away from Bangkok’s prime shopping areas to central business districts (CBDs) like Asoke and residential areas of Bangna. Meanwhile, Love, Bonito has 17 retail outlets spread across Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia.

Rachel Lim, Co-Founder of Love, Bonito told Peak Magazine, “Data can tell you what’s selling but being on the ground tells you why something is not selling and what the customer is looking for.”

Visiting shopping malls is a popular social activity in Southeast Asia and this trend is not set to disappear anytime soon. Brands should take advantage of dual physical and online presence.

Updated (28 Feb 2019): Shopee Thailand does not have a solid plan to build its own logistics network yet. The comment was mentioned briefly in the interview with Bangkok Post which was made a focal point by the media.

Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank held a fintech event last week on behalf of its digital arm, Digital Ventures. ‘Faster Future: SCB Fintech Forum‘ drew in speakers from across the globe, from Wei Hopeman, Managing Partner at Asia based Arbor Ventures to Jeffrey Paine, co-founder of Singapore based Golden Gate Ventures, an early-stage VC firm that focuses on Southeast Asia.

“Southeast Asia looks like China in 2006, like India in 2011,” said Paine. “In China and India, the competition is usually local, but in Southeast Asia, the competition comes from around the world.”

During his panel, Paine outlined eight key tech sectors that he believes we will see more of in Southeast Asia within the next 3-5 years.

1. The age of differentiated commerce, more B2B

  • It is the age of niche B2B ecommerce. Southeast Asia will see the growth of niche verticals in the B2B space, for example, the rise of the industrial sector in Singapore
  • The industry will see a surge in ecommerce enablers that help traditional companies go online
  • Ecommerce will shift slightly to differentiated commerce. This refers to a culmination of good content, strong networks and an efficiency in selling. Ecommerce has evolved to an all-round experience, not simply putting something up for sale online

 

2. The rise of a ‘one stop shop’ financial platform

  • The region can expect a rise in fintech transactions over the next 2-3 years
  • Integration of big data in credit scoring will be prominent, especially in Indonesia. Big data should be able to minimize the amount of work and extend sources needed to provide loans.
  • The ‘one stop shop’ financial platform will allow you to purchase loans, insurance and credit cards in one place. This will be a place where a few winners can come into dominate market share
  • The rise of pure mobile online banks. Vietnam is already starting to adapt following the launch of Timo Bank, the country’s first digital bank
  • Financial services for ecommerce. For example, consumer credit will matter when a shopper buys something on a marketplace. This will also be in tandem with the rise of vendor financing for marketplaces
  • On-demand insurance will also become a trend in the next 3 years i.e. Asia Insurance
  • Blockchain infrastructure will arrive in Southeast Asia

 

3. Automobile innovation to benefit B2B & B2C

  • Innovations will be in the areas of software that helps drivers find parking, rent cars, connect with automobile care

 

4. The rise of healthcare tech in Thailand and Singapore

  • The birth of centralized data hubs and analytics will be integrated with healthcare
  • Creation of software for hospitals, clinics and private practices to make their workflow more efficient. Ex. Patient records, paying bills etc.
  • The application of IoT software for hospitals and senior homes
  • The rise of telemedicine platforms online and doctor on-demand services. This would benefit rural provinces as it’s a challenge to find doctors on demand when you’re not in a big city

 

5. The strengthening of enterprise SaaS

  • AI/Machine learning based predictive analytics software for business users, especially in the area of automated customer service and sales management software
  • Will take time to develop and be applied, but it should be used by HR departments and accounting/finance divisions to automate certain processes such as number crunching and database filing

 

6. Long-haul logistics

  • Long haul trucking would be particularly useful for the popular trucking route between Malaysia-Thailand and vice versa
  • On-demand trucking platforms could add more convenience to consumers, allowing them to have parcels delivered at a more flexible schedule. This would be a challenge in Indonesia due to the different islands within the country
  • Route planning innovation will also become a trend in logistics. This would help to tackle various roadblocks such as unidentified locations, problems with delivery addresses and more.

 

7. Increasing popularity of agritech

  • Agritech has been slow to rise, but should become a key trend within the next few years as agriculture is prominent in Southeast Asia
  • The development of financial services for farmers will pick up. Thailand and Indonesia have begun to develop government centric databases and e-procurement platforms, but neither has fully taken off
  • The creation of market linkage models, ex. farm to table platforms

 

Looking ahead

Southeast Asia is waking up, especially as each country’s government is pushing tech initiatives and creating guidelines such as sandboxes for fintech and exploring taxing for ecommerce.

According to Jeffrey Paine,

As soon as the government starts to push, large corporations will begin to take notice.

This trend is apparent in Thailand, with many institutional banks such as SCB itself, or Kasikorn bank venturing into digital finance services.

Real estate companies such as Sansiri are teaming up with SCB to explore property tech, focusing on research, development and startups, aligning with the Thai government’s 4.0 initiative that aims to move the country towards a more digitized framework.

Jeffrey Paine notes that for domestic startups, going regional is not impossible. China will play a significant role in the region’s development, and Southeast Asia needs two main vices; capital and time, in order to accelerate the region’s technology growth.

For more on SCB x Digital Ventures Fintech Forum and to watch the panel, click here.

In the recent years, Southeast Asia has embraced the internet and growth opportunities it provides with arms wide open. As approximately 70% of the population in the region is under 35 years old, the young people have been driving the adoption of the internet that continues to disrupt existing business models.

The latest Digital in 2017: Southeast Asia report by We Are Social and Hootsuite provides useful data for ecommerce entrepreneurs about internet and mobile usage trends in the region. The data once again emphasizes how different each country is across one region, meaning a one-fits-all solution in Southeast Asia wouldn’t fly without localization.


The scope of the report 
has expanded over the years and new data points have been added to provide a wider picture of the digital trends in the markets.

Here are the key insights from the report about the region to know:

  • Ecommerce is becoming the region’s gold mine as 53% of Southeast Asia’s population uses the internet
  • The growth opportunity in the region is tremendous, to put it in the words of the new US president Donald Trump – the number of internet users grew by 31% (80 million) during the last year, continuing the double digit growth in 2015
  • More than 300 million people or 47% of the region are active mobile internet users and mobile internet penetration is likely to pass 50% in the next few months

While the situation does vary across countries – the trend remains the same, Southeast Asia is digitizing and very quickly. This is a list of what is expected to change from 2016, some things we expected and others, we were surprised to learn:

1. The love for mobile

Southeast Asians love their mobile phones. Across the region, around 90-95% of the population use mobile phones, and in most countries, except for Indonesia, more than 60% of the population have smartphones.

Source: compiled by eIQ based on reports Digital in 2016 and Digital in 2017. Digital in 2016 contains data about device ownership, while Digital in 2017 provides insights on device usage.

The smartphone is essential for accessing the internet, especially taking into account that only 21% of Indonesia’s population and 26% of Thailand’s population use laptops.

In Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, the computer usage is higher – around 40% of the population but that is still well below the popularity of smartphones.

With this in mind, ecommerce businesses should think mobile-first by ensuring that their customer experience is mobile friendly. The biggest online marketplaces like Lazada, Zalora, 11street and Zilingo have launched mobile apps to capture this growing audience.

Zilingo built a seller app specifically with the small fashion brands in mind to make it easier for them to create an online store just with their mobile phone.

2. Media consumption is hypnotic

Cheaper smartphones and tailored data services for social networks mean that people can afford to use the internet more often. In 2016, the number of respondents who are using the internet every day has increased by around 10 percentage points in Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. In Indonesia, the increase is a staggering 30 percentage points.

Source: compiled by eIQ based on Digital in 2016 and Digital in 2017.

The amount of time people spend with media is also rising. In the Philippines, people on average spend 9 hours online on their computers compared to a little more than 5 hours a year ago.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand follow closely as people spend around 30 minutes less than Filipinos do online. Southeast Asians use the internet on their phones for about 4 hours a day except in Singapore and Vietnam where the average daily use of the internet via a mobile device is around 2.5 hours.

As more and more people go online, it makes sense for businesses to meet their customers where they prefer to be – in the digital environment. This doesn’t mean giving up offline channels.

Ecommerce players such as eyewear brand Glazziq and fashion brand Pomelo have gained their popularity as online-only businesses but plan to expand their presence offline also by launching physical showrooms.

3. Email? What is that, majority of Thais may ask

Email marketing is typically one of the most effective tools for ecommerce businesses to lure customers and drive conversions. According to Campaign Monitor, for every $1 spent on email marketing, it generates $38 in return on investment.

A report by Salesforce Marketing Cloud showed that 96% of Southeast Asian online consumers identify themselves as email newsletter subscribers and 48% have made a purchase as a result of a marketing email.

However, the latest Digital in 2017 shows that email might not be the best choice to target customers in the region, at least – not in all countries.

Apart from Singapore where 71% of respondents check their emails weekly on smartphones, less than one third of the rest of Southeast Asia checks their emails during a week.

The situation is most surprising in Thailand where less than 10% of the population checks their emails either on smartphone, computer or tablet.

This has significant implications for online marketers because instead of asking for customer emails, they should capitalize on phone numbers. If most Southeast Asian customers are plugged to their phones, SMS marketing could be good for targeting customers.

99% of text messages from brands are opened and the click rate is nearly 20%.

4. Ecommerce is growing up

The highly quotable report by Google and Singaporean investment fund Temasek predicts that the ecommerce market will reach $88 billion by 2025 from the relatively low $5.5 billion in 2015. There are indications that the market opportunity might be even bigger and valued at $238 billion.

The data shared by online statistics and business intelligence portal Statista in Digital in 2017 predicts the value of the consumer (B2C) ecommerce market of six Southeast Asian nations in 2016 has been $14.8 billion.

Source: Digital in 2017, Statista Digital market outlook, e-commerce industry, January 2017.

In all countries, more respondents have reported making a product or service purchase online in the past 30 days. More than half of the population in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, which make up a $6.4 billion market together, buy online.

Source: compiled by eIQ based on Digital in 2017 and Digital in 2016.

Singapore at the moment is the dream market for ecommerce businesses as the average annual ecommerce spending per user in 2016 was $1,022. In Indonesia and Thailand, the annual ecommerce revenue per user was 4.5 times smaller.

Source: Digital in 2017, Statista Digital market outlook, e-commerce industry, January 2017.

In Vietnam, the average ecommerce revenue per user is predicted to have been $55 in 2016, the second lowest in the region only to the Philippines but the country’s eagerness to shop online makes up for it. Vietnam has the third highest ecommerce penetration (35%) in the region following Singapore (51%) and Malaysia (45%).

What does all this data tell us? That ecommerce is moving away from being a “buzzword” to a business model that traditional companies in Southeast Asia should consider adopting. The region’s real potential, either $88 billion or $238 billion, will only grow as the respective countries develop and their populations urbanize.

While there is plenty of buzz around brands building their own webstores instead of a strategy focused on distribution through e-tailers such as Amazon, Tmall, or Lazada, Southeast Asian brands are still undecided on whether to move online at all. This is despite ecommerce growth projected at 25%, tantamount only to China’s growth (AT Kearney 2015) but there are trailblazers – brands ahead of the curve who have decided to invest in their brand.com stores in Southeast Asia such as HP, Maybelline, Kiehl’s and Nescafe in Thailand.

In the US, brand.com accounts for only a small portion of online sales. For example, Estée Lauder’s brand sites generate 5.56% of all online sales – around $10.79B. In Southeast Asia, the number is even smaller primarily because of how early stage ecommerce is compared to Western counterparts. Yet as seen with SME Mabeza in the February Newsletter, businesses of all sizes are starting to mark their own online territory. Figure 1 shows that for enterprise level brands, there is indeed optimism in the channel. *These brands were chosen specifically because they use end-to-end services with aCommerce, decreasing the variables.

Aggregating internal data from 2015 revealed that webstores experienced 15% month-on-month GMV growth from Jan 2015 to Dec 2015 and averaged over 300% growth in the same year. The brand that grew the fastest was Maybelline then HP, Kiehl’s and lastly NESCAFÉ Dolce Gusto

Cost breakdown of a webstore strategy & ecommerce

The investment into a full brand.com strategy for a globally recognized business, which includes site development, store management, merchandising, logistics, fulfillment for one year is not black and white. There are many variables such as industry, product category, order size, volume of orders, packaging and more. To illustrate, here is a very rough breakdown of the process, but again, it does vary depending on the client and their needs.

Site development & backend.

To develop a fully integrated ecommerce store with Magento can cost anywhere between $20,000-80,000 USD. This price doesn’t include hiring a webmaster, someone technical who maintains and fixes the site issues and bugs, who can charge almost $3,000 USD monthly maintenance fee. Webhosting and bandwidth usage can also range anywhere between $2,000-10,000 USD per month, depending on the size of the business. How developed and fast the site is will directly and indirectly impact conversion rates, Google SEO rankings, average order values (AOVs), and repeat purchase rates.

Storefront.

Your team will also require a Store and Merchandising Manager. This process covers merchandising, inventory, promotions on site, updating images and more across the brand.com site as well as other channels such as Lazada, starting at $4,000 USD per month. This is not a low-level operational role; Store and Merchandising Managers for ecommerce sites make scientific, data-driven decisions to optimize product and promotional placements across the site. Good and average store managers often mean the difference between 1x and 3x your monthly average order values.

Fulfillment.

Fulfillment and delivery can range between $1-5 USD per order depending on location and weight of order, customer service requirements, etc. Based on your company’s volume, the cost of logistics will vary greatly. Due to low credit card penetration and inexperience with online shopping, last mile in Southeast Asia requires options such as cash-on-delivery and reverse logistics to appeal to customers trying ecommerce for the first time. 

Marketing.

Kevin Costner’s famous line in Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come,” does not apply to ecommerce shops. A brand webstore needs online marketing campaigns that include Google Adwords, Facebook marketing, dynamic re-targeting , email newsletters, and more. There is too much competition that exists online meaning sites will not sell unless they pay for the attention of the consumer. Even the most popular of brands have large marketing budgets.

Brands are expected to spend between 20-30% of sales revenue on marketing and advertising. For offline brands and retailers, the cost of sales (CoS) metric is typically a single digit percentage. However, for ecommerce, this number is higher, especially during the first two years of operations, when the main focus should be on building the brand, acquiring customers, and increasing the subscriber database. Once the number of repeat customers increases, revenues go up and CoS will go down. Multi-channel brands and retailers often struggle to build a case for ecommerce because the entrenched mindset still expects single digit CoS but to succeed online, brands need to look at the long-term benefits and set expectations for CoS accordingly.

Overall, businesses are looking to at least $100,000 USD investment over a one year period and this does not factor in the variable factors: logistics or marketing.

Why businesses are investing in brand.com stores in Southeast Asia

Brand.com stores in Southeast Asia are an important channel. As Fig. 2 in Graph 1 indicates, this channel was the largest driver of gross margins in 2015 with over 45% MoM. Beyond sales, there are three critical reasons why brands are building out their webstores: 

  1. Owning customer data – This is important because applying this data can increase customer lifetime value in the long run via targeted, personalized marketing, particularly O2O opportunities & loyalty reward programs.
  2. Total control of branding – For high-end businesses, brand identity is as important as the product itself. Owning your own webstore allows you to fully showcase and build a solid brand that your customers can identify with. You have complete freedom on how you wish to market your shop. 
  3. Higher margins – By selling on your own domain, there will be no expensive commission or payment processing fees. 

So is it worth it?

Yes, but the answer is not that simple even for enterprise level brands. These are some factors to consider beforehand:

  • How many SKUs does your brand have? If you are an FMCG brand who only sells toothpaste, consumers will not buy it online as it is a product that can be easily purchased offline amongst a larger selection (eg. grocery store). To drive traffic to your site, you can offer an immensely beneficial reason for shopping on your webstore. Take the Dollar Shave Club for example, an ecommerce business that generated a mass volume of orders from a small range of products ($1 razors). The secret? A subscription model. On the other hand, in the case when a major brand, like P&G for example, has a wide range such of toothpaste, shampoo, dog food and everything for the home, it may be worth creating a branded store.
  • What is the average order volume and average order value? Low-priced items do not make the investment into brand.com worth it unless coupled with other strategies such as order bundling, subscription models or charging delivery fees. 
  • How loyal are your customers to the brand? When fake items are rampant in Southeast Asia, customers are loyal to an outlet they can trust and a brand.com store guarantees that. People who buy high-end goods are also not necessarily bargain hunters and are looking for a site they can trust coupled with convenience.

As more entrants tackle Southeast Asia, like imminent Alibaba and Amazon, this may change over time, but our data shows that Lazada remains the most powerful marketplace for non-fashion and luxury brands at 36% of GMV. Other channels such as mobile, online pop-shops and other marketplaces play an important role as well.

The key take away from brand.com stores in Southeast Asia and channel data in figure 1 and 2 is that businesses should be taking a multi-channel approach.

“What our 2015 data shows is that it is important to realize that brand.com strategy is a complement and not a replacement of a wider distribution strategy,” said Raphaël Gaillot, Director of Merchandising at aCommerce.

And as ecommerce in Southeast Asia matures and more brands take the plunge, it is equally important for brands to be creative in ecommerce strategies because there is not a one-size fits all model.