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E-commerce is one of the greatest business success stories of the last decade. It has created jobs, injected new dynamism into our economies, created countless ‘unicorns’ and given people, who wouldn’t otherwise have had it, access to goods and services that improve their lives.
This is most apparent within Asia. It is the largest and most populous continent on the planet with a combined population of approximately 4.4 billion, meaning roughly 3 out of 5 people on Earth call this region their home. It’s fair to say that e-commerce is already booming within the region - 993 million people currently shop online, with this figure set to grow by an additional 454 million new users by 2021. Driven by an emerging middle class, movements towards deregulation of cross-border trade and improvements in technology such as more affordable mobile internet access, the Asia market represents a huge opportunity for businesses who want to be a part of the e-commerce success story.
But before choosing which country within Asia to target first, there are a few aspects to consider as part of an ecommerce route to market.
The Dragon: Breaking out of China
China has traditionally been seen as the natural starting point for many retailers looking to break into the Asian market. However, this trend is starting to change. The Chinese Dragon once monopolised and dominated the Asian e-commerce market, but Asia now has an array of lucrative markets to offer. One particular incentive for merchants to look beyond China is due to the current trade negotiations with the US that has put the future of the country’s trade at stake. On September 17th 2018, the United States announced tariffs of 10% on Chinese imports worth $200 billion a year. Unless China and the US reach an agreement, these tariffs were set to rise to 25% by the end of the year along with another round of protectionist tit-for-tat. This uncertainty presents an opportunity for the rest of the Asian markets to flex their e-commerce muscles.
The Tiger club: Which countries in Asia are growing fastest, and why
Over the next five years, 88% of the growth in the global middle class will come from Asia. Every month, millions of people in Asia climb out of poverty into the middle class, giving people a greater opportunity to be a part of the e-commerce success story.
With the political uncertainty, in China, manufacturers have begun to look for new destinations across Asia for investment and to base factories. This has benefited countries in Asia. The Tiger Club economies collectively refer to the economies of what we would traditionally call the developing countries of South East Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam). But this is changing, this ‘club’ all have maturing e-commerce markets that are profiting from this uncertainty as their appetite for cross-border trade grows.
A good example is Vietnam which has risen from being classified as poor to now a middle-income country. With cheap labour, an educated workforce, and a business-friendly environment, Vietnam has managed to attract some major companies such as Intel, LG and Samsung and many others. As a result, the country now has an export sector worth an estimated $19 billion a year, enriching the local workforce which in turn is creating the demand for goods and services beyond their borders.
In rapidly industrialising and developing markets, e-commerce is growing at more than 50% a year. Another example from the ‘Club’, example the Philippines is now the 10th fastest-growing economy in the world, with a growth rate in 2017 of 7%. Underlying the impressive growth rate is a $180 billion infrastructure programme known as “Build Build Build” – which was introduced as an initiative to accelerate infrastructure spending and develop industries that yielded robust growth. This created a variety of new jobs, improved the lives of Filipinos and encouraged growth in e-commerce spending, with the Philippine economy growing by 6.7% year-on-year. 
Elsewhere in the Club, Thailand, the second largest economy of Southeast Asia, has approximately 57 million internet users that are well-versed in the use of digital technologies, mobile, and e-commerce. Thailand is an ideal growth environment for e-commerce businesses and is another example how a country has transformed to embrace e-commerce transactions, to ultimately become a prosperous market for investors and savvy cross-border e-commerce focused merchants.
Taming the Tigers: Attracting local consumers
When focusing on which alternative market in Asia is right for your business, there are many important factors to consider such as existing customer sales, pre-sales and post sales customer service, logistics and delivery, customer targeting, etc. Another important aspect to consider is the mix of payment methods available at the checkout. It is useless to invest in creating and implementing an APAC e-commerce strategy only to fail at the last hurdle.
Payment cultures vary from country to country, and the same goes for online payments throughout the world. But what is especially true of Asia is that the differences from country to country within the region could not be greater. For example, in Singapore, 74% of the population’s favourite payment is card-based payment, whereas in China, E-wallets are strongly preferred, with 49% of online purchases made using this payment method. No other country in the world uses this online payment option as much. This diversity of preferred payment methods emphasises how crucial it is to understand local preferences when it comes to a merchant developing their shopping online strategy. If consumers can’t pay with their preferred method, they will simply choose to shop elsewhere.
E-commerce markets and payment methods develop at a fast pace. It’s therefore important to consider these aspects and partner with the right organisations when looking to reap the rewards of a region at the inflection point of their e-commerce spending power.
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