Race to become Russia’s Amazon is heating up

The pandemic pushed millions of Russians to try e-commerce. With Amazon absent, a handful of local players jockey for dominance.

| Updated on: Aug 20 2022, 23:29 IST
A delivery driver unloads Amazon-branded boxes in Manchester, northwest England. 
A delivery driver unloads Amazon-branded boxes in Manchester, northwest England.  (AFP)
A delivery driver unloads Amazon-branded boxes in Manchester, northwest England. 
A delivery driver unloads Amazon-branded boxes in Manchester, northwest England.  (AFP)

Covid-19 has driven a projected 10 million more Russian consumers online, accelerating the race to become the country's answer to Amazon.com Inc.

The chance to dominate e-commerce in the world's biggest country is still very much up for grabs. Russia's largest online retailer, Wildberries, controls only 13% of the market, even after its sales doubled in the first nine months of the year. By contrast, Amazon accounts for about half of the US market.

“Aided by the pandemic, large e-commerce platforms are gobbling up market share from both offline and online stores,” said Marat Ibragimov, an analyst at Gazprombank. “Competition is heating up, and in the future two or three will dominate.”

Russia has more internet users than Amazon's No. 2 market, Germany. Yet entrenched consumer habits and logistical challenges have stymied e-commerce in the country and discouraged foreign companies like Amazon from doing business there.

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After President Vladimir Putin ordered stores to close for almost two months during the first wave of Covid-19 in the spring, that left consumers with little choice but to give e-commerce a try. Internet sales are projected to surge 44% in 2020 to 2.5 trillion rubles ($32 billion), according to researcher Data Insight.  

“When the authorities shut the local market because of Covid-19, all I could do was to try the internet,” said Nadezhda Nikulina, 62, who lives in northwest Russia and mainly uses Wildberries. “I found it really convenient, and the choice is enormous.”

Online purchases will account for just over 10% of Russian retail sales in 2020, up from 6% last year, according to industry lobby group AKIT. That compares with 16% in the US and 37% in China in 2019.

Internet shopping hasn't taken off as quickly in part because of the difficulties involved in making deliveries in such a large country. Even the national mail service only recently started experimenting with home delivery. A widespread reluctance to pay for goods before they're received—a holdover from Russia's chaotic transition to a market economy in the 1990s—has also played a role.

The local market remains fractured, with thousands of internet shops, including offerings from traditional retailers such as electronics store M.video and children's goods chain Detsky Mir. But there is a trend toward Amazon-style marketplaces.

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Wildberries started in 2004 as an online clothing merchant, but now sells items ranging from food to electronic goods. More than 90% of its deliveries go to a network of 26,000 pickup points around Russia—the biggest distribution network outside of the national post—that allow customers to try on goods before taking them home.

There are three other main contenders to become Russia's answer to Amazon.

One is AliExpress, a joint venture between China's Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and London-listed Mail.ru Group Ltd. After losing market share because of the long delivery time for orders from China, it has begun working with more local suppliers. AliExpress subsidizes delivery costs and provides same-day service on some goods through a partnership with the state postal service.  

Ozon, a Russian copycat of Amazon backed by billionaire Vladimir Evtushenkov and Baring Vostok Capital Partners, offers next-day delivery to 40% of the population. But deliveries to Siberia can take as long as five days.

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Ozon announced in October that it applied to sell shares in the US to fund further growth, after more than doubling sales in the first half. It has set up a network of drop boxes near customers' apartments, while also offering direct shipments through partners.

The smallest competitor to date is Yandex NV, which accounts for 2% of the online retail market. Yandex already runs Russia's leading search engine and its biggest car-hailing service. After an attempt to create an online marketplace with Sberbank PJSC ended earlier this year, Yandex sold $1 billion in shares to billionaire Roman Abramovich and other partners to invest more in e-commerce.

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First Published Date: 20 Oct, 12:42 IST