Global e-commerce jumps to $26.7 trillion as COVID-19 boosts online retail sales

According to an UNCTAD report, online retail sales grew markedly in several countries, with the Republic of Korea reporting the highest share at 25.9 per cent in 2020, up from 20.8 per cent the year before.


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The dramatic rise in e-commerce amid movement restrictions induced by COVID‑19 increased online retail sales’ share of total retail sales from 16 per cent to 19 per cent in 2020, according to estimates in an UNCTAD report released on Monday in Geneva.

The report, “Estimates of global e-commerce 2019 and preliminary assessment of COVID-19 impact on online retail 2020," was released during a two-day intergovernmental meeting held virtually on measuring e‑commerce and the digital economy.

According to the report, online retail sales grew markedly in several countries, with the Republic of Korea reporting the highest share at 25.9 per cent in 2020, up from 20.8 per cent the year before. 

Meanwhile, global e-commerce sales jumped to $26.7 trillion globally in 2019, up 4 per cent from 2018, according to the latest available estimates.

This includes business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) sales, and is equivalent to 30 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) that year.

“These statistics show the growing importance of online activities. They also point to the need for countries, especially developing ones, to have such information as they rebuild their economies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Shamika Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s director of technology and logistics.

Mixed fortunes for some firms

The COVID-19 pandemic has also resulted in mixed fortunes for leading B2C e-commerce companies, according to the report.

Data for the top 13 e-commerce firms, 10 of which are from China and the United States, shows a notable reversal of fortunes for platform companies offering services such as ride hailing and travel.

All of them experienced sharp declines in gross merchandize volume (GMV) and corresponding drops in ranks.

For instance, Expedia fell from 5th place in 2019 to 11th in 2020, Booking Holdings from 6th to 12th and Airbnb, which launched its initial public offering in 2020, from 11th to 13th.

Despite the reduction in services companies’ GMV, total GMV for the top 13 B2C e-commerce companies rose by 20.5 per cent in 2020, higher than in 2019 (17.9 per cent). There were particularly large gains for Shopify (up 95.6 per cent) and Walmart (72.4 per cent). Overall, B2C GMV for the top 13 companies stood at $2.9 trillion in 2020.

Business-to-business sales dominate e-commerce

The report estimates the value of global B2B e-commerce in 2019 at $21.8 trillion, representing 82 per cent of all e-commerce, including both sales over online market platforms and electronic data interchange (EDI) transactions.

The United States continued to dominate the overall e-commerce market, ahead of Japan and China.

B2C e-commerce sales were estimated at $4.9 trillion in 2019, up 11 per cent over 2018. The top three countries by B2C e-commerce sales remained China, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Cross-border B2C e-commerce amounted to some $440 billion in 2019, an increase of nine per cent over 2018. The report also notes that the share of online shoppers making cross-border purchases rose from 20 per cent in 2017 to 25 per cent in 2019.

E-commerce firms perform poorly in digital inclusion

Despite e-commerce firms’ sizeable fortunes, an index released by the World Benchmarking Alliance in December last year rated them poorly on digital inclusion.

The index ranked 100 digital companies, including 14 e-commerce firms, based on how they contribute to access to digital technologies, building digital skills, enhancing trust and fostering innovation.

E-commerce enterprises underperformed compared to companies in other digital industries such as hardware or telecommunication services.

For instance, the highest ranked e-commerce company was eBay at 49th place. Overall, e-commerce companies obtained a score of just 20 out of a possible 100.

According to the report, a main factor for the poor performance is that e-commerce companies are relatively young, typically founded only in the last two decades.

“These firms have been more focused on shareholders rather than engaging with a wide group of stakeholders and compiling metrics on their environmental, social and governance performance,” the report says.

Nonetheless there are some bright spots. For instance, several e-commerce companies provide free training to entrepreneurs on how to sell online including in some cases, specifically targeted at vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities or ethnic minorities.

First Published:May 3, 2021, 10:55 p.m.

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