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  January 15th, 2021 | Written by


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“COVID-19 and E-commerce,” a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report, finds that the novel coronavirus “has changed online shopping forever.”

Netcomm Suisse eCommerce Association partnered with UNCTAD, in collaboration with the Brazilian Network Information Center and Inveon, to create the “COVID-19 and E-commerce” report. Based on a survey of about 3,700 consumers in Brazil, China, Germany, Italy, the Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, South Africa, Switzerland and Turkey, the report concludes that the pandemic has forever changed online shopping behaviors, greatly accelerating the shift to a more digital world

The greatest shift in this regard, the survey shows, is among consumers in emerging economies. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift toward a more digital world,” Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi says in an UNCTAD statement. “The changes we make now will have lasting effects as the world economy begins to recover.”

Kituyi added that the acceleration of online shopping globally underscores the urgency of ensuring all countries can seize the opportunities offered by digitalization as the world moves from pandemic response to recovery.

Mixed messages 

The survey shows that online purchases have increased by 6 to 10 percentage points across most product categories, with the biggest gainers being the ICT/electronics, gardening/do-it-yourself, pharmaceuticals, education, furniture/household products and cosmetics/personal care categories.

However, average online monthly spending per shopper has dropped markedly. Consumers in both emerging and developed economies have postponed larger expenditures, with those in emerging economies focusing more on essential products.

No surprise: Tourism and travel sectors have suffered the strongest decline, with average spending per online shopper dropping by 75 percent.

“During the pandemic, online consumption habits in Brazil have changed significantly, with a greater proportion of internet users buying essential products, such as food and beverages, cosmetics and medicines,” said Alexandre Barbosa, manager of the Regional Center of Studies on the Development of Information Society at the Brazilian Network Information Center.

Increases in online shopping during COVID-19 differ between countries, with the strongest rise noted in China and Turkey and the weakest in Switzerland and Germany, where more people were already engaging in e-commerce.

The survey found that women and people with tertiary education increased their online purchases more than others. People aged 25 to 44 reported a stronger increase compared with younger ones. In the case of Brazil, the increase was highest among the most vulnerable population and women.

Also, according to survey responses, small merchants in China were most equipped to sell their products online and those in South Africa were least prepared.

“Companies that put e-commerce at the heart of their business strategies are prepared for the post-COVID-19 era,” said Yomi Kastro, founder and CEO of Inveon. “There is an enormous opportunity for industries that are still more used to physical shopping, such as fast-moving consumer goods and pharmaceuticals.”

“In the post-COVID-19 world, the unparalleled growth of e-commerce will disrupt national and international retail frameworks,” said Carlo Terreni, president, NetComm Suisse eCommerce Association.

“This is why policymakers should adopt concrete measures to facilitate e-commerce adoption among small and medium enterprises, create specialized talent pools and attract international e-commerce investors.”

The survey results suggest that changes in online activities are likely to outlast the COVID-19 pandemic. Most respondents, especially those in China and Turkey, said they’d continue shopping online and focusing on essential products in the future.

China’s speedy recovery gets noticed

“Global Trade Update,” a separate UNCTAD report, highlights China’s notable trade recovery. The country’s exports, after falling in the early months of the pandemic, stabilized in Q2 2020 and rebounded strongly in Q3, with year-over-year growth rates of almost 10 percent. Contrary to other major economies, Chinese imports stabilized in July and August and grew by 13 percent in September.

Other key trade trends include the following:

-Exports from developing countries have fared better than those of developed nations. Year-on-year growth of developing economies’ exports improved from -18 percent in Q2 to -6 percent in July, while those from developed nations increased from -22 percent to -14 percent.

-No region was spared from the fall in international trade in the second quarter of 2020, but the sharpest decline was for the West and South Asia regions, where imports dropped by 35 percent and exports by 41 percent. As of July 2020, the fall in trade remains significant in most regions except for East Asia.

-The value of international trade in the energy and automotive sectors remains substantially below its levels of 2019. On the other hand, increases in demand for home office equipment and personal protective gear has resulted in strong growth rates for trade in the sectors of communication equipment, office machinery, and textiles and apparel.

COVID-19 and Medical Supplies

The report gives special attention to COVID-19 medical supplies (personal protective equipment, disinfectants, diagnostic kits, oxygen respirators and other related hospital equipment). Key findings include the following: 

-Trade in COVID-19 medical supplies has grown by an average of more than 50 percent since April 2020, but the increase in such trade has primarily benefited residents of wealthier nations.

-Since the outset of the pandemic, each resident of high-income countries has benefited on average from an additional $10 per month of imports of COVID-19 related products, compared with just $1 for people living in middle-income countries and a mere $0.10 for those in low-income countries.

-Overall, per capita imports of medical goods essential to mitigate the pandemic have been about 100 times higher for high-income countries than for low-income nations.

UNCTAD highlights that the difference in access to a potential COVID-19 vaccine for residents in wealthy and poor countries could be even more drastic than for medical supplies. While some low-income countries have the capacity to locally manufacture some protective equipment, this may not be the case for vaccines, which require stronger manufacturing and logistics capacities.