The boundless opportunity of e-commerce

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By Bjorn Biel M. BeltranSpecial Features Writer

The invention of the Internet is now long past, and the world with regards to connectivity is now smaller than it has ever been. For most people, instant access to anyone on Earth with an Internet connection has been a wondrous convenience. For those with a mind for business, it’s the opportunity of the century.

According to cumulative data from the online market research firm Statista, worldwide retail e-commerce sales is projected to grow more than threefold from $1.3 trillion in 2014 to $4.5 trillion in 2021. Three years from now, retail e-commerce sales are estimated to account for 15.5% of all retail sales worldwide.

“With recent digital development exploding in the Asia-Pacific region, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing online retail markets are Indonesia and India, followed by Mexico and China,” Statista wrote on its Web site.

“Digital retail development in these countries is strongly connected to the constantly improving online access, especially in mobile-first online communities that have long struggled with the traditional fixed broadband connections due to financial or infrastructure restrictions but enjoy the advantages of cheap mobile broadband connections,” it added.

The Philippines is not far behind. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) launched the Philippine E-Commerce Roadmap 2016-2020, as well as a dedicated e-commerce Web site, which expects “renewed and reinvigorated collaboration between the government and the private sector to fully accelerate the growth of Philippine e-commerce — one that is globally competitive and integrated.”

The roadmap aims to contribute 25% to the Philippines’ gross domestic product by 2020 through supporting the country’s micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs), which make up 99.6% of all Philippine enterprises. This number is up from a 10% estimate made in 2015 by iMetrics Asia Pacific Corporation. By participating and engaging in e-commerce programs and projects, the government declared, Philippine MSMEs can become globally competitive.

Even more recently, Facebook included the Philippines in the list of 47 countries with access to its Marketplace service, a platform within the Web site wherein users can buy and sell goods online. Marketplace’s objective was to streamline the user experience of people who use Facebook as a place of business.

“Already 550 million people buy and sell in groups on Facebook each month, we are excited to bring Marketplace to the Philippines and make it easier to discover, buy and sell goods locally,” Facebook’s director of product management Karandeep Anand said in recent reports.

With the buyers and sellers identified through their Facebook profile, Mr. Anand pointed out that both parties making transactions can verify each other and vet their trustworthiness, making a safer experience for both.

The social media Web site has long been home to a number of enterprising individuals who have been using its wide reach to tap an online market. Joyce Chua, the owner of the online clothing store Happy Stripes, has been doing business on Facebook for six years.

“It is where my target market is,” Ms. Chua told BusinessWorld. “Although Instagram is also gaining foothold in terms of social media as a business platform, I’m still more comfortable using Facebook mainly because I have started my business here and have already gained a huge following.”

Ms. Chua started Happy Stripes in 2012, when she was still studying as a 2nd year business student in UP Diliman, and since then has garnered some 50,000 followers on Facebook.

“Back then, online shops were not really a thing yet. I just figured it would be a fun thing to do outside school since I love fashion and it was a great opportunity to apply what I have been learning in business school,” she said.

“I went to Bangkok because I heard the clothes there are really affordable, especially in bulk. They have a lot of wholesale malls and markets for people who want to resell the clothes. Since their trends are a little ahead compared to the Philippines, I thought it would give my business a huge advantage to resell the clothes here in the country,” she added.

Christine Keh, owner of Tiny Basket PH, an arts and crafts store with a following of almost 34,000 people, had a similar story.

“My online business started out when I was waiting for my official graduation — right after when my last semester at school ended. We had a marketing class where we needed to sell several types of products — and reach a quota of 60 [followers] for the whole semester,” Ms. Keh told BusinessWorld.

When the class ended, Ms. Keh had already reached over a hundred followers. She decided to keep going.

“Since then, I have built my reach through Instagram and Facebook, from the hundred plus followers to almost 34,000 followers combined for both Instagram and Facebook,” she said.

Through social media Web sites, a great many business-minded people have grown their livelihoods, providing goods and services to people who might otherwise have been out of reach. Facebook, and in extension, Instagram, have become powerful havens for e-commerce and considerable players in the growth of the national economy.

“I think small entrepreneurs like me find Facebook and Instagram as a very convenient, cost-efficient way to introduce our products,” Ms. Keh said.

“Facebook, for small entrepreneurs like me, is a very cost-efficient and an almost free channel to market our products and services to a very diverse market. It almost does everything for me and my business — from segregating my market, to keeping inventories and price lists, as well as building personal connections with my customers at a minimal cost,” she added.

Ms. Chua also added that entrepreneurs can also tailor that market to suit their target demographics. “Facebook also has this option for businesses where you can create a page and boost the posts on this page, like a sponsored post. But the good thing is you can tailor your audience to fit your target one. You can choose which demographic of people would be viewing your ad. It really helped my business since I could maximize my reach,” she said.

Ultimately, almost anyone can become an online entrepreneur nowadays. Ms. Keh pointed out that entrepreneurs from all walks of life have the same opportunities for advertising and promotion as many big businesses.

“Competition is tough since there are a lot of online shops now as compared to before,” Ms. Chua said. “There are also more platforms for e-commerce now like Instagram, Shopee, and the like. But it is still a lucrative business, as long as you take time to know your market well and constantly rebrand and innovate what you can offer,” she added.