The State of International eCommerce. Southeast Asia

This article concludes our series on international commerce and describes the current state of ecommerce in Southeast Asia (SEA). Unlike previous articles in the series, we will not concentrate on each individual country within SEA, but will talk primarily about the region as a whole. First, most countries in SEA share similar characteristics and can be treated as parts of a larger 'state'. Secondly, many ecommerce companies within SEA operate on a cross-border basis, which means they trade across several territories, rather than in any particular country, with a few notable exceptions. If you'd like to learn more about our series on international ecommerce, check out the following pieces:

  1. The State of International eCommerce. Part 1. Turkey and Persian Gulf
  2. eCommerce in Israel

You might be also interested in a few articles we've written on China:

  1. Marketplace boom in China
  2. Chinese AI

Before we dive into our analysis, let's define what constitutes Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia, also known as Southeastern Asia or SEA, is the geographical subregion of Asia consisting of the regions south of China, southeast of the Indian subcontinent and northwest of Australia.

By contemporary definition, SEA consists of two cultural regions: mainland Southeast Asia, comprising Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, and maritime Southeast Asia, consisting of East Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and regional archipelagoes and small islands that belong to Malaysia, India, and Australia.

Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia are considered the region's emerging, most promising markets. Indonesia and Vietnam, in particular, are noteworthy subjects of a more comprehensive debate for several reasons. Indonesia, for instance, is expected to account for more than 50% of SEA's ecommerce market by 2025. It also makes up half of SEA's population (273.5M), while Vietnam is teeming with more than 100 million people, almost double that of Italy, for comparison.

Both Indonesia and Vietnam also have quite unique, distinctive landscapes: Vietnam, for example, is considered China's manufacturing alternative in the region, while Indonesia boasts a vibrant VC scene. On the other hand, we have Singapore and Malaysia, already sophisticated markets, which have been garnering attention for quite some time. Singapore, dubbed a "smart nation," has been known for its government's dedication to a digital economy, its ultra-high-speed, trusted ICT infrastructure, and tech-savvy population. Malaysia's growth, too, has been driven by the increased digitalization of processes across all major industrial sectors as the Malaysian government seeks to become the digital hub in the region.

eCommerce in Southeast Asia: Facts & Figures

According to eMarketer, ecommerce sales in SEA are expected to total $89.67B by the end of 2022, an increase of $15.31B over last year, and $100B by 2023, a long way from $37.22B in 2019. These projections make SEA the fastest-growing region in the world in terms of ecommerce. Latin America comes second, topping the 20% expansion threshold. Two countries within this region—the Philippines and Indonesia—will produce even faster growth rates than the mean average for the region: 25.9% and 23% respectively, compared to 20.6% in regional growth. The Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand will collectively rank among the top 10 markets in the world for ecommerce sales growth.
Top 5 Countries by Retail eCommerce Sales Growth in 2022


Since the start of the pandemic, SEA has seen some 70 million people emerge on its digital map, according to Meta's SYNC Southeast Asia report.

Google's survey, e-Conomy SEA 2021, reports another number—40 million new internet users—bringing the Internet penetration in SEA to 75%. Google also estimates the number of digital consumers in SEA who made at least one purchase online in 2021 was 350 million people.

Proactive consumer and merchant behavior, as well as rising investor interest, put the SEA region on track to reach $1T GMV by 2030, as can be seen in the infographic below:

eCommerce Sales in SEA 2022-2030


The pandemic has contributed to the overall growth in the region, changing the buyer's journey and increasing the use of online channels, which now play a vital role in brand discovery and evaluation.

Below we'll look at a few trends that have been shaping the SEA ecommerce market for the past few years.

eCommerce Trends Shaping the SEA eCommerce Market

If you're looking for ways to enter the SEA market, it's worth looking into what has been driving ecommerce in the area.

Social commerce

Incorporating business with social media has been gaining traction since long before the pandemic and continues to be extremely popular. The number of social media users in Indonesia, for instance, has increased from 79 million to 160 million since 2016. A similar trend is being replicated throughout the whole region. According to forecasts, the value of social commerce sales in the SEA region will reach approximately $2.9T by 2026.

Three main types of social commerce are popular in the region:

  • Peer-to-peer sales platforms or community-based marketplaces where individuals trade with each other,
  • Group buying or collective buying, which offers products or services at significantly reduced prices, provided the purchase will be made by a specified number of buyers, and
  • Live commerce or conversational commerce, which implies direct social interactions during videos or chats.

The skyrocketing social media penetration in SEA, however, doesn't guarantee immediate success. For instance, Indian social commerce platform Meesho recently retreated from Indonesia, while another social media and affiliate marketing platform from Vietnam, Ecomobi, has been doing surprisingly well across five SEA countries.

The Rise of Social Commerce: Definition, Strategies, and Trends 2022 [Web 3.0]

Mobile commerce

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has led to a dramatic uptick in mobile usage across the region, accelerating the shift toward everything mobile. Being late adopters of the Internet, many consumers in the region never owned a desktop, leaving mobile devices as the only means of communication and shopping, especially during isolation and quarantine.

Indonesia, in particular, has emerged as an enthusiastic adopter of mobile commerce, with 79% of Indonesians purchasing something through their mobile devices. According to an AppsFlyer report, the six SEA markets collectively (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand) have seen a 13% to 35% increase in in-app revenue from March to July 2021, despite worldwide in-app spending falling 2.05%. Research from Adjust, another mobile analytics agency, estimates 70 million users in SEA shop via their mobile devices on popular platforms such as Shopee and Lazada.

Omnichannel

Omnichannel has been on the market trends' radar since at least 2018. However, in the SEA region, which has been significantly disrupted digitally since the pandemic, the trend has only started to truly flourish. Multiple omnichannel strategies, which strive to provide consumers with a consistent user experience across all possible sales touchpoints, help retailers devise efficient ways of reaching consumers wherever they happen to be.

As mentioned above, social media has been instrumental in shaping the ecommerce economy in SEA, while making consumers comfortable using technology to discover and purchase products and services online, just like their friends do. Social media video, in particular, has been one of the most popular discovery channels, with 22% of SEA respondents referring to video as the most important channel for the discovery of products and services. SEA retailers have been very quick to recognize the trend and turn it into a tremendous advantage in their overall omnichannel strategy.

Live commerce

An all-encompassing trend of social video commerce incorporates many other minor trends, such as live commerce or shoppertainment. In October 2021, a hugely popular shopping platform in the SEA region, Lazada, announced its partnership with K-pop superstars Seventeen. Following the announcement, Seventeen participated in various virtual live-streaming events on local broadcast networks, the company's social media channels, and Lazada's own unique 11/11 shopping festival, which was also livestreamed on Lazada's shopping app.

That's just one example of how popular stars or any other type of influencer could be used in promoting a company's products and services in what's called shoppertainment. Shoppertainment involves demonstrating, promoting, and selling products to consumers via livestream format with interactive elements of micro-interaction, gamification, VR, and influencer marketing programs. Shoppertainment is a phenomenon that's very likely to grow and evolve further in the region.

Digital payments

According to research by Visa, 85% of consumers in SEA embrace a multitude of cashless payment methods—cards, contactless card and mobile payments, e-wallets, and QR payments. While cash remains a viable alternative, consumers' preferences are unwaveringly shifting toward digital payments, with the lowest rates in cash payments observed in Singapore (15%), Malaysia (23%), and Indonesia (28%).

Although the Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) trend based on a type of short-term financing that allows customers to make purchases and pay later is new to SEA, it's steadily gaining traction with major players such as Reepay, Akulaku, Hoolah, Cashalo, and Atome offering BNPL options. According to the research, BNPL's market capitalization in the SEA region will grow to $33.6B by 2027.

Emerging consumer population & B2B2C

While the pace of the ecommerce industry in SEA has greatly accelerated over the past 24 months, most of that growth was concentrated in urban areas. Still, there remains a massive addressable market of millions of other consumers in second- and third-tier cities. So, the next growth opportunity lies in those areas. What we'll likely see more of are B2B2C collaborations between the bigger regional suppliers and the small- to medium-sized local businesses, which together stand a greater and better chance of reaching people in the outlying communities. One example of such a win-win enterprise is Warung Pintar, an Indonesian technology company that integrates supply and demand services for micro-businesses.

Improvements in infrastructure and logistics

Just like in the Persian Gulf countries, logistics pose a number of challenges for ecommerce companies in SEA. With many islands scattered across the region (some 17,000 in Indonesia, for instance) and chronic underinvestment in infrastructure, accessibility continues to be a major problem. However, it also brings opportunities. With the adoption of a platform business model and innovative technological solutions, companies can exploit gaps in the market and build successful multimillion-dollar businesses.

One such business that has quickly picked up an initiative is Waresix, an Indonesian e-logistics platform that offers on-demand freight-forwarding, warehouse, and trucking solutions to help companies navigate SEA's complex ecosystem. The region's diversity and complexity have also led to a new breed of ecommerce enablers, such as Synagie and Great Deals, which provide myriad adjacent services like online store management and development, marketing, and customer care.

Top eCommerce Companies in Southeast Asia

Below are the top 6 ecommerce companies operating in the SEA region.

Shopee

Shopee is a multinational technology company headquartered in Singapore. The app-based platform was first launched in 2015 as a social-first, mobile-centric C2C marketplace. Following successful operations in Singapore, the company later expanded to neighboring states, including China, and several countries across the Americas and Europe. To compete with other ecommerce websites in the region, such as Lazada, Tokopedia, and AliExpress, the company launched its own website, expanded its business model to include B2C, and started offering online shopping security through its own escrow service called "Shopee Guarantee," where it withholds payment to sellers until buyers have received their orders.

Shopee has partnered with more than 70 courier service providers across its markets, such as NinjaVan for Singapore, Pos Malaysia, Pos Indonesia, and Delhivery and Ecom Express for India.

In 2017, Shopee's parent company, Sea Group, filed for an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) for $1B. Tencent has become the main beneficiary of the Sea listing with a 20% share while Blue Dolphins Venture, an organization set up by founder Forrest Li, holds 15%.

As of 2021, Shopee is widely considered the largest ecommerce platform in SEA with 343 million monthly visitors.

Shopee

Lazada

Lazada is another ecommerce giant based in SEA. Founded in 2012 by Maximilian Bittner, with the backing of Rocket Internet, and later acquired by Alibaba Group, Lazada is headquartered in Singapore but operates in multiple countries across the region. Initially, Lazada's business model involved selling inventory from its own warehouses, but later the company added a marketplace model that allowed third-party retailers to sell their products through Lazada's site. As already mentioned, Lazada has recently introduced many entertainment features like livestreaming and games to lock people in, making its app more than just 'shopping'.

Just like other ecommerce companies in the region, Lazada significantly benefited from the pandemic, having grown almost 80% in the 18 months ending September 2021, according to Alibaba's investor report. At the time the report was issued, there were more than 159 million active monthly users, 922,000 sellers, and the store's gross merchandise value amounted to $21B.


Lazada

Tokopedia

Tokopedia is an Indonesian technology company founded in 2009 by two locals born and raised in small Indonesian cities with a goal to democratize ecommerce in the country. Starting with a marketplace business, Tokopedia has grown into a technology company with the marketplace, fintech, payment, logistics, fulfilment, and new retail businesses. Since its foundation, the company attracted interest and capital injections from global venture capitals and multiple investors, including Alibaba Group and Google.

According to a report from iPrice Group, Tokopedia was the most visited local ecommerce website on a desktop in Indonesia in 2019, with a total of 66 million average monthly visits and 25% of the total market share. As of October 2020, Tokopedia's marketplace had more than 350 million products listed by 9.4 million merchants. In May 2021, Tokopedia completed a merger with Gojek, establishing a new holding called GoTo.



Tokopedia

Tiki

Vietnam-based ecommerce major Tiki was founded in 2010 by Vietnamese entrepreneur Son Tran. The company has grown since then from a simple online bookstore to a successful digital marketplace of day-to-day convenience products. In Vietnam, Tiki faces fierce competition from popular regional players such as Shopee and Lazada, and significantly trails behind them both in monthly web traffic and app ranks. For the last quarter of 2021, Tiki had 17 million monthly web visits compared to Shopee's 89 million and Lazada's 21 million. In November 2021, Tiki confirmed its US$258 million in series E funding, making Tiki's valuation around $1B.


Tiki

Qoo10 SG

Qoo10 is an SEA ecommerce platform formerly known as GMarket, founded in 2010 by Giosis Pte. Ltd., a joint venture between GMarket founder Ku Young Bae and eBay. Headquartered in Singapore, the company operates localized online marketplaces across the SEA region, including Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and Hong Kong, and one international online marketplace. Data insights from iPrice showed that Qoo10 consistently held the top spot for monthly user website visits among ecommerce platforms in Singapore until 2019, when it was dethroned by Lazada and Shopee.

Bukalapak

Bukalapak

Bukalapak, another ecommerce giant operating out of Indonesia, is considered the largest digital company and the fourth unicorn startup. Founded in 2010 as an online marketplace for small and medium enterprises, it soon expanded to support smaller, traditionally family-owned businesses (aka warungs). Bukalapak has successfully ridden the pandemic wave, recording a 130% surge in transactions in 2020. As of 2021, the company now serves 13.5 million micro, small, and medium enterprises and 100 million customers. Bukalapak was also the largest listing ever on the Indonesian Stock Exchange at the time of its IPO in 2021, when it raised US$1.5B. However, six months later in January 2022, it lost nearly 66% of its value. According to investors, Bukalapak had to solve its management issues to continue to thrive and compete with increasingly popular regional platforms.

Qoo10 SG

Conclusion

Southeast Asia is set for explosive growth—total ecommerce sales in the region are among the world's largest outside of China and the U.S. Even though it seems like it's primarily the Chinese who are setting the trends while acquiring successful SEA enterprises, the regional ecommerce companies still have their unique features and are also capable of blazing global trails.

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Marina Vorontsova
Technical author and eCommerce advocate