The Urban-First eCommerce Approach: Looking To Emerging Markets

During grad school, I spent a summer teaching economics to university students in Uzbekistan – our summer campus was up in the mountains a few hours outside the capital city of Tashkent. To receive packages, we would have to request that the sender ship them to the university’s main office in the capital. When enough packages had arrived, the office staff would scramble to find someone to drive up to the summer campus to deliver them. The wait was often 2-3 weeks.

Last-mile deliveries are still a huge challenge. Years later, last-mile delivery to less urban areas continues to confound businesses around the globe. In almost every emerging market in the world, delivery times are still far quicker for consumers living in the big cities than those in more rural areas. A laptop ordered from a major online retailer in Brazil, for example, takes almost three weeks to get to the Amazonian capital of Manaus versus approximately one week to Rio or São Paulo. In Russia, the difference in shipping times between Moscow and Vladivostok is similar. Many online retailers piece together a variety of different courier networks or are forced to rely on local postal services to reach the most far-flung customers.

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Trends In Early-Stage eCommerce Markets

As brands eye a growing number of eCommerce markets around the globe, it’s important to understand the trends that mark early-stage markets and how these trends often evolve with time. The following factors suggest that an eCommerce market is still in an early phase:

Purchase decisions are made largely based on price. It is common to hear about consumers in early-stage eCommerce markets using the Internet to seek the lowest prices available on products. In markets like China and Russia, conventional wisdom shows that consumers go online to bargain hunt. However, over time, this dynamic gives way to consumers electing to buy from trusted retailers and those that provide a superior customer experience.

Online purchases are dominated by consumers in tier one cities. As eCommerce starts to take off in new markets, it tends to be the consumers in the largest, wealthiest cities that comprise the bulk of eCommerce markets. Whether it’s São Paulo and Rio in Brazil, Beijing and Shanghai in China, or Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia, the top few cities tend to represent the lion’s share of early eCommerce revenues. Within the first few years, however,   revenue growth starts to shift to smaller cities where offline product selection is more limited and the online channel helps fill the void.

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