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UN figures show global online sales were 19% of 2020 total

Online retail sales have reached €26.7 trillion during the pandemic, having increased their share of all retail sales from 16% to 19% in 2020, according to figures released today by Unctad (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development).

Online sales increased in all countries, but South Korea reported the biggest jump, from 20.8% in 2019 to 25.9% last year. China came second, with a 24.9% share, up from 20.7% the year before.

The UK came third on a global level and first by far in Europe with a 23.3% share, a significant leap from 15.9% in 2019.

“These statistics show the growing importance of online activities,” said Shamika Sirimanne, Unctad’s director of technology and logistics. “They also point to the need for countries, especially developing ones, to have such information as they rebuild their economies in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Business-to-commercial e-commerce companies did very well last year. The biggest player globally was Alibaba, whose gross merchandise value (GMV) reached $1.145 trillion. Amazon is second in the global rankings but it recorded a bigger increase in its GMV (38%, compared to Alibaba’s 20.1%). 

However the biggest annual growth (95.6%) was recorded by Shopify, a Canadian company. Walmart in the US was another success story with a 72.4% growth in GMV last year.

In the report, Unctad points out that the pandemic has not been a positive for all e-commerce companies. The fortunes of platform companies offering travel-based services have gone into reverse. Expedia, for example, fell from 5th to 11th place in the GMV rankings following a 65.9% drop, while Airbnb moved down from 11th to 13th place with a 37.1% fall.

According to Unctad, e-commerce firms, despite their sizeable fortunes, perform poorly on digital inclusion. Their contribution to access to digital technologies, building digital skills, enhancing trust and fostering innovation is much lower compared to companies in other digital industries such as telecommunications services.

The main reason is that e-commerce companies are relatively young and “have been more focused on shareholders rather than engaging with a wide group of stakeholders and compiling metrics on their environmental, social and governance performance”.

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