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When Singaporeans shop online, they tend to buy products sourced from outside the lion state.

Overall, it’s estimated that 55% of all ecommerce transactions in Singapore are cross-border – meaning the items were listed on etailers in the US or China, for example – and then shipped to their eventual destination.

The statistic is higher than corresponding figures for cross-border online trade in Japan, South Korea, and China.

This is undoubtedly strengthened by the fact that the overwhelming majority of ecommerce purchases in Singapore are prepaid with credit card and Singaporean consumers are exempt from GST and import duties as long as the total value of their order is below S$400.

Singapore is also a high-income country, meaning residents can afford to splurge, while also bereft of the same logistical challenges that stymie higher adoption of ecommerce in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. Next-day delivery is the norm.

In 2016, the World Bank declared Singapore the fourth-best country for logistics infrastructure in the world noting it’s an important hub for regional and world trade, located conveniently in the heart of major shipping lanes.

There are other factors at play, too. Amazon and Singpost have a collaboration to facilitate the delivery of overseas purchases within three days – roughly the average time it takes to deliver a domestic order in Indonesia.

Despite the fantasized utopia of a truly open world economy – a scenario where goods and services can move unhindered to where demand is – the reality is that cross-border flows still involve a great deal of friction.

Cutting down cross-border fees for Singaporeans

The first problem is that there’s a high degree of financial inefficiency, with banks and payment processors trying to capitalize on arbitrage opportunities to bump up their own bottom line. Foreign exchange rates also work against consumer interest with banks routinely charging far more than official rates. And lastly, consumers are simply unaware of the available discounts and promotions that may be applicable to their purchase.

Jake Goh, CEO of RateX.

“Consumers are still paying unnecessary fees when they shop online, e.g. they pay 2%-5% in transaction fees on top of the price of the goods they purchase due to the frictions in existing payment networks,” explains Jake Goh, CEO and co-founder of RateX, a Singaporean payments startup that’s trying to iron out these inefficiencies and level the playing field.

RateX, which recently raised a US$2.3 million pre-series A funding round, has built a free browser extension – currently available on Chrome and Firefox – where users can get the lowest exchange rates for overseas purchases on Amazon and Taobao.

The extension also aggregates coupon codes, applying it directly to applicable sales. It leverages partnerships with Sephora, Zalora, ASOS, and more.

The extension is currently only available for consumers in Singapore, but the team expects to add Taiwan and Indonesia to its roster later this year. The long-term goal like most companies is to dominate the region.

“Southeast Asia is the world’s fastest-growing internet market. Gross merchandise value of ecommerce will rise to US$65.5 billion by 2021, up from US$14.3 billion in 2016,” outlines Jake referring to a study by Frost & Sullivan.

Jake claims RateX has helped shoppers save S$500,000 in both foreign exchange conversion fees and coupon codes since launch. He adds that they’re expanding at 30% month-on-month but doesn’t specify whether that’s in terms of users or transaction value.

A cursory examination of the website reveals the number to be actually S200,000 though.

Leveraging blockchain

The founder accepts that while the ultimate goal is to simplify cross-border commerce for all of Southeast Asia, a key hurdle the company faces is siloed infrastructure when it comes to payment and settlement mechanisms. There are significant overheads and fees involved when dealing with multiple currencies and paying merchants in different countries.

So what’s the solution to this problem? Jake believes blockchain can minimize the intermediaries involved in cross-border settlements. The team’s already working on the Rate3 token – a proprietary payment network built on top of the Stellar horizon platform that specifically looks to solve problems in fintech.

“This significantly reduces the risk and fees associated with different banks in various countries […] RateX eventually leverages on [it’s] own payment network to scale in a much more efficient way compared to existing methods,” explains Jake.

The eventual aim is for the Rate3 token to be used pervasively across the ecommerce ecosystem, bridging together shoppers, merchants, 3PLs, wholesalers, and manufacturers.

“We believe that blockchain technologies are key to creating this [enabling network],” affirms Jake.

The key challenge for the team will be convincing the disparate players in the ecosystem to come onboard by accepting this token as a payment mechanism. It’s unclear what the incentive structures will be for them to move away from existing structures towards Rate3.

At the moment, however, the primary mode of monetization is via affiliate sales, where merchants give RateX a commission of the sales it brings to them. The RateX browser extension will suggest products as users browse sites and the site has an updated list of trending deals.

“This business model allows us to give consumers zero markup on exchange rate conversion fees and transaction rate fees,” outlines Jake.

Singaporean shopping preferences

The startup’s been facilitating shoppers in Singapore for a couple of years now. What has it noticed about trends in the country?

Jake reiterates the view that Singaporeans are one of the top cross-border shoppers in the world. Despite a thriving mall culture, the sheer variety of international brands and fast-fashion trends means that all products cannot be found in local stores. Even when they are, it’s sometimes cheaper to purchase from overseas via online shopping even after factoring in shipping fees.

The two largest segments for its user base are consumer electronics and appliances – which are primarily sourced from either the US or China – as well as clothing and fashion brands that haven’t established a presence in Singapore yet.

The dynamic goes some way in explaining why Amazon set up shop in Singapore as well as the decision of Lazada to offer merchant goods from Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace. Consumer purchase intent is marked and vivid, why not double down to make the process even more seamless?

Jake also notes that most RateX shoppers display a tendency to purchase things late at night.

Online activity spikes between 10PM – 1AM in Singapore.

Mobile shopping is on the upswing, Jake says, but it’s still not the dominant channel particularly when it comes to big-ticket purchases. Desktop browsing and shopping are deeply ingrained in the Singaporean consumer psyche, a factor that Jake believes is due to the better product comparison features on a larger screen.

Singaporeans are also incredibly plugged in. The average resident has over three connected devices and the overall internet penetration rate is about 85%, one of the highest in Asia, but Singapore isn’t a mobile-first country like Indonesia or the Philippines. Consumers accessed the web on desktops and PCs before the smartphone revolution engulfed the region. It doesn’t seem like these preferences are going away anytime soon.

Asian lovers don’t seem to shy away from Valentine’s day.

According to Mastercard, 75% of mainland Chinese are likely to buy a gift for their partner on this amorous occasion, followed by 74% of Thai, and 63% of Malays and Filipinos.

They’re shelling out hefty sums too.

Chinese residents indicated they would spend an average of US$310, closely trailed by Hong Kong at US$282 and Taiwan with US$281.

Filipinos don’t spend as much as some of their other Asian counterparts, but they’re ranked as some of the most romantic in the region.

An Orient McCann study revealed that Filipinos are the most emotional people in the world and second among those who most frequently say “I love you”, making Valentine’s Day an ideal event to let their feelings be known.

Google Trends data for the past week show interest in Valentine’s Day from the Philippines reaching a zenith as we approach the day itself.

Search interest is escalating fast.

What are Filipinos searching for online? And how can brands leverage this information?

Analyzing customer preferences in The Philippines

ecommerceIQ surveyed 500 Filipinos with access to the internet in an effort to understand how they prepare for Valentine’s Day.

87.2% of those surveyed said they intend to purchase a gift to mark the occasion, whereas only 12.8% indicated that they had no plans to do so.

But it’s not so straightforward.

63.9% of survey respondents said their eventual purchase would take place offline.

Within this subset, 42.8% said both the search and purchase would happen in-store and 21.1% outlined that their purchase journey would start online by searching for products but would be followed by a visit to their local mall.

36.1% of the people surveyed said they’re comfortable transacting online, mainly because of better deals & discounts, as well as the option of scheduling delivery at a particular time.

The most popular gifts sought by Filipinos for Valentine’s Day were surprisingly clothes at number one, followed by chocolates, and perfumes.

Flowers ranked a distant fourth – likely because the price of flowers in Manila tends to spike by 500% on or right before Valentine’s Day.

There’s no real substitute for red roses but consumers have a plethora of options when it comes to clothing and perfumes, leading to price stability.

What’s preventing Filipinos from purchasing online?

According to the survey results, more than 75% of respondents exhorted that they prefer to see the product before buying it.

A further 17% said they can’t trust the quality of products they see online or that they’ve been subjected to scams. Only 5% thought malls offer better deals & discounts.

Lazada was the overwhelming favorite among those who did purchase online. Almost 60% of respondents said they’d shop for Valentine’s Day gifts from the popular etailer. Shopee came in second, with 22.2%.

Despite the fact that the most sought-after gift was clothes, pure-play fashion ecommerce site Zalora secured only 4.4% of the vote.

Photo credit: Maxpixel

Capturing love online

Filipino preferences are indicative of a larger trend engulfing global ecommerce markets.

“It’s very hard to launch a brand these days that’s just online-only,” explains Sucharita Mulpuru, analyst at Forrester Research. “It’s an incredibly difficult and crowded ecommerce environment.”

Filipino brands have consistently tried to latch on to prevailing sentiments during Valentine’s Day to either sell more products or increase brand awareness.

Popular fast food joint Jollibee launched a successful campaign last year playing on themes of unrequited love and eventual reunification.

The ads, which were released in three parts, went viral on social media with over 50 million views on Facebook alone.

Condom manufacturer DKT Health gave away nearly 40,000 condoms in Manila during the Valentine’s Day weekend in 2015 by partnering with stalls selling balloons, chocolates, and roses.

Southeast Asian brands are cognizant of this dynamic, at least in Thailand. David Jou, the CEO and co-founder of Pomelo wrote in 2016 about how he viewed offline as a key component of his business moving forward.

“[…] is our goal to be the biggest online fast fashion brand or is our goal to be the biggest fast fashion brand?”, he said, posing an apparent challenge to his team.

Brands in mature ecommerce markets have already started to take a similar route too. Zara opened a pop-up shop in London last month to support its ecommerce channel. Staff at the store were trained to assist with online orders – shoppers can walk in, examine the inventory, receive recommendations from assistants, and eventually pay for the goods they like. But all the products they purchase are shipped to their address.

For companies looking to capitalize on the visible potential and consumer intent to purchase, they’ll have to overcome the prevalent trust barrier currently impeding ecommerce. A consistent online-offline retail experience could very well be a significant first step in doing so.

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.

As internet adoption grows at a double digit pace year on year in Southeast Asia – a 31 percent increase last year – retailers and brands must find ways to capture the wave of the some 80 million new consumers coming online.

Internet shopping has become one of the most robust areas of growth in the last few years, especially in markets like Indonesia and Thailand as both international and local ecommerce players pour money into winning the emerging digital customer in the region.

In such a fragmented market segmented varying in cultures and languages, there are a few common key threads to be noted about the region’s increasingly affluent shoppers:

  • Southeast Asia is mobile first. Mobile subscriptions have increased by 8% since last year, adding an additional 60 million users.
  • Southeast Asian’s are the most actively engaged with social media. Indonesia is sometimes referred to as “Twitter city” whereas Total Access Communication Pcl, estimates that Thais spend up to six hours a day on Facebook and Youtube – the 8th highest in the world.
  • Southeast Asia has low credit card penetration and a large unbanked population – 73 percent – due to a lack of financial maturity.
  • There is an overall low trust in anything ‘digital’ due to its novelty and user unfamiliarity.

So how do retailers, brand stores and marketplaces attract more consumers to shop on their websites?

One highly successful and proven method is to incentivize with large discounts, leading to the emergence of some of the region’s most infamous flash sales.

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Consumers around the world like a good bargain, but in Southeast Asia and particularly in the Philippines, companies are entering price ways to win customers and gain loyalty. As beauty and personal care in The Philippines is expected to increase by 3% CAGR in the next five years, the sector is preparing to capture the advances in disposable income through campaigns promoting a comfortable and better lifestyle.

Social media has not only provided a channel for brands to reach a younger audience but has also increased the sophistication of beauty product buyers as they are exposed to global trends and products advertised on Instagram and Facebook content.

The influence of global brands have an advantage here as their established names are very much highly regarded by locals as they are correlated with a more upscale look and feel in developing economies.

For beauty brands looking to build a bridge to millennials, digital integration is not only recommended but necessary.

In 2016, the rise of e-retailers such as Sephora online, Zalora, GlamourBox and BeautyBar Philippines encouraged major brands to jump online. An example is Avon Cosmetics’ change in distribution after launching on Zalora last year; the company previously sold only direct to consumer (MLM) exclusively through offline sales representatives.

Avon shop-in-shop on Zalora PH

GlamourBox PH is a multi-brand marketplace

Brands are also selling on beauty specific marketplaces such as GlamourBox and taking a lesser approach to their own branded site in The Philippines. The ability to buy makeup from multiple retailers is nurturing ecommerce behavior in the country.

Imagine is a shopper lands on MAC cosmetics Philippines website – it isn’t equipped for ecommerce, merely a catalogue – and how frustrated they will feel when they learn that ordering online isn’t possible.

MAC Philippines’ website directs consumers to an offline store, not an online checkout

As price consciousness in the Philippines is still a major factor in any type of purchasing, Euromonitor notes that global brands can leverage their own web stores to implement an installment payment scheme as it attracts consumers who refrain from buying at offline store retailers because they automatically need to pay for the items in full.

Following the ECOMScape series that revealed the ecommerce landscapes in Southeast Asia’s largest six economies, eIQ is sharing a comparison of each country’s top e-marketplaces.

A marketplace is defined as the arena of competitive or commercial dealings. An e-marketplace can be horizontal – offering products from various categories – or vertical – offering only products of a specific category. Read more