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Global e-commerce is developing rapidly in the face of the epidemic

May. 06, 2022

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on digital transformation and how e-commerce and related digital technologies can contribute to recovery were the focus of UNCTAD E-commerce Week 2022, held in Geneva from 25 to 29 April. The fast-growing consumer e-commerce activity continued to grow significantly in 2021, with online sales surging, despite restrictions being eased in many countries, according to the latest data.

In the 66 countries and territories for which statistics are available, the proportion of Internet users who make online purchases has increased from 53% before the pandemic (2019) to 60% after the pandemic (2020-2021). But the extent to which the pandemic has led to rapid growth in online shopping varies from country to country, with many developed countries already having relatively high levels of online shopping (over 50% of Internet users) before the pandemic, while most developing countries have low consumer e-commerce penetration.

E-commerce is accelerating in developing countries. In the UAE, the proportion of Internet users who shop online more than doubled from 27% in 2019 to 63% in 2020; In Bahrain, it tripled to 45% by 2020; In Uzbekistan, it rose from 4% in 2018 to 11% in 2020; In Thailand, where consumer e-commerce penetration was already high before the COVID-19 pandemic, the increase of 16 percent means that for the first time, more than half of the country's Internet users (56 percent) will shop online by 2020.

Among European countries, Greece (up 18 per cent), Ireland, Hungary and Romania (up 15 per cent each) saw the biggest increases, according to the data. One reason for the difference is that countries vary widely in the degree to which they go digital, as well as in their ability to move quickly to digital technologies to mitigate economic dislocation. The least developed countries in particular need support in developing e-commerce.

Official statistics from seven countries -- China, the US, the UK, Canada, South Korea, Australia and Singapore, which together account for about half of the world's GDP -- show that online retail sales in these countries increased significantly from around $2 trillion in 2019, before the pandemic, to $2.5 trillion in 2020 and $2.9 trillion in 2021. Across these countries, while disruptions caused by the pandemic and economic uncertainty dampened overall retail sales growth, online retail sales grew strongly as people increased their online shopping, increasing their share of total retail sales significantly from 16% in 2019 to 19% in 2020, although offline sales have since picked up, But online retail sales growth continues through 2021. Online sales account for a much larger share of total retail sales in China (about a quarter in 2021) than in the US (about an eighth).

According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), 13 top consumer-focused e-commerce companies, including Alibaba, Amazon, JD.com and Pinduoduo, saw a significant increase in revenue during the pandemic. In 2019, these companies had combined sales of $2.4 trillion. That figure rose to $2.9tn in the wake of the 2020 pandemic, and then rose by a further third in 2021, bringing total sales to $3.9tn (at current prices).

The increase in online shopping has further consolidated the market concentration of already strong players in online retail and marketing businesses. Alibaba, Amazon, JD.com and Pinduoduo saw revenue growth of 70 percent between 2019 and 2021, with their share of total sales across the 13 platforms rising from around 75 percent between 2018 and 2019 to more than 80 percent between 2020 and 2021.

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