It’s not surprising that e-commerce boomed with the onset of the coronavirus. When lockdown measures went into effect, consumers banned from visiting brick-and-mortars turned to online shopping for fulfilment of their retail needs. In fact, the top 500 US companies made nearly $850 billion in online sales last year, a 45 percent jump year-over-year and the largest increase since 2006, according to a Digital Commerce 360 study. Among them, Amazon, Walmart and Target benefitted most, as customers in a time of crisis turned to familiar big brands, which marked a shift from 2019 when smaller companies registered faster growth. Now, social media giants are getting in on the e-commerce game while around the world those numbers are likewise skyrocketing. Here’s what you need to know.
In July, Instagram executive Adam Mosseri made a jaw-dropping statement: “We’re no longer a photo-sharing app.” Because the pandemic “accelerated the shift of commerce from offline to online by a number of years,” the platform now plans to focus on the four key pillars of creators, video, messaging and shopping. Industry experts understood that when e-commerce reached record highs last year, social sites including Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter were forced to pivot their functionality or risk losing revenue. “Thanks to the pandemic-driven e-commerce boom as well as increased social media consumption, we saw all of the major social platforms roll out new offerings, or fine tune their existing offerings,” said Jasmine Enberg, eMarketer senior analyst.
Case in point: Instagram introduced Shops, an online portal that lets businesses customize their “storefront” looks. The site further expanded its commerce requirements to accommodate a wider range of merchants. A few weeks after rolling out the novel feature, Instagram went global with its Shops tab, thus further expanding its e-commerce capabilities. In similar vein, Facebook debuted a livestream summer shopping experience featuring brands like Sephora, Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and Abercrombie & Fitch. During each event, customers were able to search for products, ask real-time questions about sizing and suitability, and receive tips from top experts. While livestream has long been a popular means of shopping in China, Coresight predicts this market will hit $6 billion in sales this year and grow to a whopping $25 billion industry by 2023. Snapchat and Pinterest leaned into the use of AR technology to let experience-starved Covid customers “try on” beauty and fashion items. And Twitter tested its Shop Module in late July, letting customers tap on a product from Nike, Walmart, Patagonia and other retailers to learn more about it, then pull the trigger on a purchase without leaving the app. “With this pilot, we’ll get to explore how our engaged, responsive and chatty audience reacts to products that are emotionally charged—like a new jersey from your favorite sports team—or that provide lasting impact—like a new skincare regimen,” said product lead Bruce Falck.
As was the case in the United States, e-commerce in Europe grew by leaps and bounds in 2020, according to the 2021 European Ecommerce Report. Total sales hit 757 billion euros by the end of last year, which marked a 10 percent increase over 2019. “The past year has exposed the importance of digital transformation,” said Luca Cassetti, secretary general of Ecommerce Europe. “Ecommerce has proven to be exceptionally well placed to facilitate the digitalization of retail and create a seamless shopping experience for consumers.”
Due to the global pandemic and ensuing lockdown measures, many physical stores across the continent opened new online retail channels. Merchants experimented with fresh omnichannel shopping solutions, like the hybrid click-and-collect model that lets shoppers purchase online before picking up curbside from a brick-and-mortar, with limited personal interaction. “The retail and wholesale sector is going through a significant transformation process,” said Christian Verschueren, director-general of EuroCommerce. “Before the pandemic, 70 percent of retailers and wholesalers had no facilities for online sales, and those physical stores who did have an online presence overcame the challenges better.”
In terms of regions, Western Europe enjoyed the highest e-commerce revenue rate at 64 percent. France alone, for example, generated over $112 billion euros in this sector last year, marking an 8.5 percent growth compared to 2019. According to an Ecommerce Europe report, 41.6 million French people buy online, and 41 percent of those shoppers make their purchases from mobile phones. Eastern Europe saw the next highest e-commerce growth rate, at 46 percent, while Central and Southern Europe were tied for third and fourth place, at 28 and 24 percent growth rates, respectively.
Meanwhile, in India, the pandemic rapidly accelerated the adoption of e-commerce, with consumers testing at least two new online shopping sites and apps in the last year. A report from GIPSI, a division of Mumbai-based digital marketing company Tonic Worldwide, found that roughly 620,000 social commerce searches take place every month. What’s more, there are 1,103 commonly used e-commerce apps in India, with those shopping destinations edging out other sites in terms of popularity. On social, shopping preferences skew predominantly toward Instagram, followed by Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest, the latter of which enjoyed 799 percent growth. Small commerce sites were most successful in this part of the world, as home businesses and local stores went online and got rewarded with a 46 percent increase in Shopify app downloads. Finally, the country registered over 1.5 million searches on topics related to constructing e-commerce websites and similar endeavours. “Who knew that the biggest barrier to contactless shopping will become the biggest trigger for the rise and rise of e-commerce?” said Anjali Malthankar, national strategy director at Tonic Worldwide. “With abundant data, there is no looking back on the reasons to adopt commerce on digital.”
There’s no doubt the once-in-a-century global pandemic changed consumers’ purchasing behaviours. Now, as the world continues adapting to shifts in how we live and shop, the question remains: will those trends prove permanent? One significant Covid-19 realization is that, for many of us, geography feels less relevant. Overall, we’re able to do more while travelling less. How this shakes out in terms of commerce remains to be seen.
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