Southeast Asia (SEA) has seen rapid development in the past decade, as countries become more urbanized, populations more connected and affluent, and technology more advanced. The region is set to be one of the largest and fastest-growing economies over the next few years, with the digital economy accelerating this growth.
One area that has gone from strength to strength is e-commerce. It currently accounts for less than 5% of total retail in SEA but is growing faster than developed markets like China and the US. With rising connectivity, a young population, and a widening middle class, the industry has plenty of headroom for growth.
So it is not surprising that more businesses are going online to capture a slice of this growth. But in a highly diverse and digital-first region, many brands may find it difficult to establish and grow their online presence. Instead of going at it alone, brands should leverage the ecosystems and reach of platforms, so they can focus on the things that matter— growing their business.
Platforms offer a gateway to mobile consumers
The digital revolution in SEA is just beginning and mobile is at the heart, where the majority access the internet mainly via mobile devices. The global pandemic further accelerated mobile digital adoption and consumption. Google estimates that 1 in 3 digital service consumers in SEA are new as e-commerce, food deliveries, and other online services become essential, and 94% plan to stick to these habits even after the pandemic.
A key demand driver is convenience. There is an app for almost everything in SEA and consumers want to shop and access essential services with a few taps of the smartphone. For retail, consumer traffic is flowing to platforms as people can now buy everything they need from luxury products to electronics to groceries all in one app. For them, platforms are a means to “window shop” virtually at any time, as they compare products at scale and shop for all their needs at one destination. In short, convenience is fast becoming the norm.
SEA consumers are also amongst the most engaged in the world, spending more time on mobile than anywhere else, with most on social media apps. For brands to connect and build loyalty with customers means to continually engage them with exciting mobile experiences.
For example, POND’S launched its AI-powered chatbot on Shopee to give users real-time skincare analysis and recommendations, resulting in two times better conversions. Similarly, L’Oreal launched an immersive AI and AR-powered digital experience and complemented the experience with livestreams and mini games, all within the Shopee app, to deepen engagement with consumers for a more personalized online retail experience.
This seamless mobile experience allows brands to focus on finding innovative ways to engage their customers while also enabling higher sales conversions through its integrated ecosystem, which allows one-stop convenience from discovery to delivery.
Brands can hyper-localize at scale with platforms
Though often seen as a bloc, SEA is one of the most diverse regions in the world with a rich mosaic of cultures, languages, ethnicities, beliefs, and nationalities. In Indonesia alone, census data shows that over 800 native languages are spoken in the country.
Countries are also different when it comes to economic conditions. On one hand, Singapore is a relatively affluent and urban city, while countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are still developing with larger rural populations.
This means that brands cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach in developing their digital ecosystems. The vast majority of consumers are more likely to shop with brands that offer personally relevant recommendations, but scaling these efforts can be difficult and costly.
Through the right platforms, brands can now do so easily. The most successful platforms take a hyper local approach, regardless of market, to ensure that everything from the app design to product selection to payment methods are tailored to local audiences. This not only helps to build trust, but also allows brands to more effectively target specific audiences. By analysing the behaviors of millions of users daily, such platforms can also identify consumer insights and trends that allow brands to optimize their marketing or make it more efficient to test a new product or grow a specific segment.
Beyond data and tools, platforms also provide experienced teams that add value to key but often “hidden” aspects of e-commerce such as partnerships or customer service, that are vital to a brand’s relationship with its customers. This allows brands to offer a complete end-to-end experience even if they lack resources or expertise.
Infrastructure support helps brands to connect the dots
SEA’s geography and demography present unique infrastructural challenges to e-commerce. In many countries, fragmented geographies impact delivery reach and timeliness. Countries like Indonesia and the Philippines comprise thousands of islands, stretching delivery times and making it more costly to buy and sell online. Outside of big cities, road and logistics networks are also underdeveloped, further slowing delivery efficiency. But infrastructure is catching up and new solutions are emerging to address the region’s unique needs.
This is both a challenge and opportunity for brands going digital. Consumers in non-metro and rural areas formed the bulk of the region’s new digital consumers in 2020 and will drive e-commerce demand in the future. Shopee observed similar trends in the year-end shopping season, with shopping activity growing significantly in places like West Java in Indonesia and Nonthaburi in Thailand. Brands that can reliably reach and meet the needs of rural shoppers will have an edge.
Fortunately, there is a wave of logistics support emerging to fill delivery gaps from first to last mile, including parcel dropoff services that connect businesses to logistics providers who can ship swiftly and reliably. The key for businesses is again to work with local partners who know the lay of the land and have the right infrastructure to help them achieve the right mix of reliability, speed, and reach. For example, by partnering with local logistics partners throughout SEA, Shopee has cut delivery lead times in East Malaysia in half and can ensure nationwide deliveries in Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
There is a sea of opportunity for online retail but businesses do not have to swim alone. To do more and go further, it is important to team up with the right platforms and partners. I for one am excited to see where we can go together in the future.