Tuesday, April 7, 2015

E-commerce opportunities surging in Korea

First published in The Korea Herald.

E-commerce is rapidly transforming the way in which enterprises are interacting with each other, as well as with consumers, and growing rapidly across the globe. Korea is no exception and it has clocked rapid growth in recent years.

According to Statistics Korea, in the business-to-consumer, or B2C segment, the online shopping transaction value reached 45.24 trillion won ($41.02 billion) in 2014, which increased 17.5 percent from 38.50 trillion won in 2013. The mobile shopping transaction value recorded 14.81 trillion won in 2014, which increased 125.8 percent from 2013.

Furthermore, in a recent report that has been overlooked by local media, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has many positive things to say about Korea’s e-commerce industry.

The 125-page Information Economy Report 2015, released on March 24, examines the potential opportunities and risks of e-commerce and examines how countries can benefit the most from the phenomenon in today’s information society.

More importantly, it has also compiled the first B2C E-commerce Index, which will be updated annually, and can serve as a useful tool for countries wishing to assess their readiness to engage successfully in online commerce.

This index is significant because until now, there were few benchmarks of country e-commerce performance. Those that exist suffer from a lack of public availability, scope or consistent methodology, as well as limited geographical coverage.

The UNCTAD Index ― which compares affordable Internet access, mechanisms for paying for goods and services ordered online, and effective solutions for their delivery ― allows countries not only to compare their performance against others, but also indicates where they are relatively strong and where there may be a need for improvement.

In what should please our policymakers, Korea is placed positively in the index with a rank of 8 among 130 countries with a score of 84.3. The countries ahead of Korea include Luxembourg (91.7), Norway (88.3), Finland (88.1), Canada (87.1), Sweden (86), Australia (85.5) and Denmark (84.7).

Noticeably, Korea is way ahead of its Asian counterparts, with Hong Kong ranking 18 and Singapore 26.

The report also looks at rural e-commerce by showcasing the case of Korea. As it notes, the experience in Korea is positive, with rural e-commerce sales continually rising. Success factors include close collaboration between the government, operators and rural citizens to market and sell goods and services.

While the report may appear favorable to Korea, one should bear in mind there is one crucial aspect that has not been included in the Index ― legal and regulatory framework ― which influences the degree of trust in online transactions.

This issue is all the more important, given that the e-commerce market in Korea is booming.

Having said that, one must compliment the Korean government for this performance. With typical Korean farsightedness, e-commerce has figured in the government’s thinking since the late ’90s.

In 1999 the Korean government ― among the first to do so worldwide ― established the “Basic Act on Electronic Commerce,” which was followed by the “Comprehensive Policies for e-Commerce” in 2000 and “e-Business Initiative in Korea” in 2001.

The government’s stated aim was to play an active role in the globalization of e-business and fully promote it as a means to realize structural innovation of its industry and strengthen the competitiveness of Korean companies.

However in the process, attention was being paid to only one segment of e-commerce ― B2C transactions.

When we talk about e-commerce the first thing that pops into our mind is B2C. It involves sales by e-commerce enterprises to consumers and online sales channels of bricks-and-mortar retail outlets or manufacturing firms.

What is not given as much attention is the business-to-business, or B2B commerce. This actually accounts for the bulk of e-commerce worldwide.

It involves transactions between businesses, such as between a manufacturer and a wholesaler, or between a wholesaler and a retailer.

Then there is consumer-to-consumer commerce, or C2C, which covers online action platforms and sales within online communities. This is followed by business-to-government commerce, or B2G, where the buyer is the government entity, such as in the case of public e-procurement.

While B2C has shown remarkable growth, development of the B2B and B2G sectors have not kept pace.

Unfortunately, Statistics Korea stopped collating statistics on B2B and B2G transactions from the first quarter of 2014, so there are no numbers to compare and evaluate. It had argued that “based on the opinions from policymaking agencies, research institutes and universities, we concluded that e-commerce statistics were not any longer useful.”

In recent months there has been steady news of the conglomerates jumping on the B2B bandwagon and investing more resources, seeing the huge potential. This is surely driving the e-commerce market in Korea.

However, for small and medium enterprises, it is a totally different ballgame. Many studies suggest that B2B offers greater potential benefits for smaller business than other forms of e-commerce. Although they need to engage in B2B e-commerce to participate in national or global value chains, they have not been able to take full advantage.

The e-commerce utilization in SMEs is currently found to be quite insufficient. While there are no regulatory hurdles, clearly the initial cost of setting up a B2B system is too high for them.

The government, for its part, is doing its bit by promoting various projects, such as creating infrastructure by establishing and standardizing B2B networks in industries, developing technology, and fostering manpower.

For years e-commerce has been directed at B2C businesses. Now, however, after substantial shifts in buyer behavior, the industry is changing. E-commerce is becoming a leveled playing field between B2C and B2B.

This is presenting some immense opportunities for B2B businesses and making way for a new age of hybrid companies, and the government should proactively help Korean SMEs jump on the bandwagon, instead of sitting by and watching conglomerates take away the entire market.

It should launch projects on international cooperation for the global B2B market so that SMEs can expand their business. Policies should also constantly be identified to keep up with new changes in the market.

Additionally, Statistics Korea should resume publishing regular data on B2B and B2G transactions. It will help the government in tracking developments and tweaking policy when needed.