Navigating Asia’s B2B e-commerce surge

Asia may be leading the transformation in B2B e-commerce but there are still untapped opportunities.

Globally B2B e-commerce is still a growing space, but Asia is leading the transformation.

If 2020 becomes known as the year e-commerce erupted, then Asia will be remembered as the epicentre of the transformation. In a region that was already emerging as the global hub for e-commerce in 2019 – the top seven countries for online consumer spending growth were all in Asia – the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the pace.

Now, as broadband access widens, 5G networks mushroom and Asia’s middle-class population eclipses its global counterparts, that dominant position is only likely to strengthen. By the end of 2021, Asian e-commerce sales are forecast to reach USD3.5 trillion1, more than three times higher than those in North America, the second-largest region.

“The surprise has been the sheer pace at which this has happened,” said Mahesh Narayan, Global Product Lead – Mobile Money & E-Commerce at Standard Chartered. “E-commerce will continue to grow exponentially in Asia. It’s even starting to impact more traditional industries amid a shift in consumer habits, regulatory developments and innovations from banks and FinTech companies.”

Undoubtedly, the pandemic has accelerated progress. A Bain-Facebook survey found that 85 per cent of people in the region tried new apps for the first time, with e-commerce, food delivery and digital payments among the most popular categories. Online grocery sales in Southeast Asia grew nearly three times during the outbreak. The “Double Five” online shopping festival in Shanghai in May generated USD2.2 billion in orders in 24 hours. And sales during Alibaba’s annual Singles Day shopping event reached a record USD74 billion.2

Despite the remarkable pace of transformation, there are still abundant untapped opportunities. According to a Bain & Co. study, three-quarters of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises in ASEAN see the potential of digital integration, but only 16 per cent are realising the full potential of technology. A Google-Temasek Holdings report meanwhile estimated that digital integration could deliver a USD1 trillion rise in the region’s GDP by 2025, while its internet economy alone could be worth USD240 billion by the same year.

Role of FI partners

As small and medium-sized businesses start digitising their lending operations, FIs are also expanding existing platforms with new services and technologies to address their needs.

“We're doing quite a few things in this space,” said Ankur Kanwar, Managing Director, Head of Cash Management, Singapore and ASEAN at Standard Chartered. “One is we're building a state-of-the -art single scalable payment engine. This is a global payment platform that supports both B2B and B2C domestic and cross border payments. We are also investing heavily in the e-commerce space and providing consistent and scalable solutions for online collections, escrow accounts, QR codes and real time direct debits.”

Standard Chartered partnered with Deutsche Post DHL Group to co-create a new online collections solution for their DHL Express Division that would allow their customers across Asia to make online payments in local currencies for shipping charges and duties & taxes, using local payment methods (including instant / QR payments, bank transfers, eWallets and cards). The solution is live across six countries and expanding.

We also supported them with digitisation of their in-store collections and payments on delivery using QR code and instant payments powered by our proprietary app and integration with the hand held devices of their couriers. This provided DHL with a cost effective solution, enabling elimination of cash in the last mile service, access to a variety of local payment methods across multiple geographies and automation of their reconciliation, all through a single integration and a single contract with Standard Chartered.

There are also opportunities for B2B e-commerce technologies to not only help B2B vendors migrate online, but to also optimise both the selling and purchasing process for business partners. Hence, a big area of focus is B2B payments because establishing payment terms or financing is fundamental to B2B e-commerce transactions.

Payments surge

B2B e-commerce revenues rose 20 per cent from the beginning of the crisis. Digital payments surged, both in advanced digital markets and traditionally cash-dominated countries. GCash in the Philippines, for instance, reported a 30 per cent increase in payments. SC Pay – Standard Chartered’s payment-processing engine – saw its share of fast payments in Hong Kong grow to 23 percent in the first half of 2020, from 10 per cent a year earlier. The buildout of SC Pay into a single global payments system will be complete in three years.

“One of our clients in Hong Kong is a telco,” Kanwar said. “Traditionally they had sent paper bills customers, which were both businesses and consumers. The customers would then make a payment through cheque or cash electronic payments. We helped them transform by printing a QR code on their paper bills. This enabled customers to simply scan the QR code and make an instant payment, cutting down on cash and cheques. In turn, that made the collections more efficient, cutting down the cycle time.”

Singapore mall operator CapitaLand introduced a new e-commerce platform featuring the wares of retailers whose shops had been forced to shut during lockdown. Other businesses used the crisis to develop new digital commercial collaborations. In Indonesia, e-commerce company Bukalapak teamed up with ride-hailing firms Grab and Gojek to run deliveries. Gojek partnered with Indonesia’s Agriculture Ministry to help local farmers and market vendors move their services online – and saw rice sales from partnership markets increase 30 per cent. Vietnamese e-commerce platform Sendo began partnering with overseas companies, including giants like Unilever and Proctor & Gamble, to expand the range of products available to local shoppers.

The way ahead

On the B2C front, there has already been a huge amount of innovation,” Kanwar said. “B2B has lagged because it’s more complicated. Going forward, B2B innovation is going to be on how do I digitise my entire supply chain? And how do I start interacting with my suppliers on the one side, as well as let's say distributors and consumers on the other side, completely through digital means.”

Moreover, progress is uneven across the region. While countries such as China, Singapore and Thailand have surged ahead in e-commerce, other parts of Asia remain underserved. Internet penetration is still low in countries such as Laos (43 per cent), Cambodia (50 per cent) and Myanmar (39 per cent), and many nations also lack the digital, regulatory and financial infrastructure to drive the growth seen elsewhere in the region. Furthermore, the immediate social and cultural expectations of B2B e-commerce users in some of these countries are not being met by existing technologies that have evolved from the West.

But with its extensive experience across Asian markets, Standard Chartered is developing solutions to overcome these obstacles. In India, for example, the bank has backed SOLV, a 360-degree B2B marketplace platform helping the country’s micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) connect and do business with a large network of buyers and suppliers, build their credit scores, source working capital finance and access business services such as logistics.

As lockdowns threatened to cripple businesses, SOLV drew on its network of manufacturers and delivery channels to get essential goods to small village shops, resident welfare societies, NGOs and small hospitals, providing supplies to thousands of families through the SMEs on the platform.  The SOLV adoption rate grew threefold during the first four months of the crisis, signalling both a rising affinity for digital platforms and a greater awareness of the need to build future resilience.

“While the broad trend is digitisation for every market, the underlying solutions that are being built are very country specific,” Kanwar said. “That's where banks like Standard Chartered are trying to take the lead. We’re not only investing in all of these technologies across the region, we’re also trying to make sure that from our corporate client perspective, we present a standardised set of solutions and use cases no matter which country they deal with.”

Produced by Bloomberg Media Studios in partnership with Standard Chartered.

This article is part of our ‘Digital Transformation’ series, exploring digitalisation trends to build resilience, efficiency and achieve transformative growth.

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