Click here to read the full paper including graphs: Future role of E-Commerce in Italy
E-COMMERCE 2020: Will the pandemic in Italy prove transformational?
- Italy has one of the lowest rates of e-commerce penetration in Europe, but the landscape is evolving rapidly. Whilst from a European perspective, Italy ranks amongst the lowest in terms of online average spend, as a percentage of income, it is amongst the highest in Europe.
- Since the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent quarantine, online shopping in Italy has surged, growing at triple digit rates, most of which was driven by the grocery sector, a nascent sector previously. Whilst it is too early to tell whether the lockdown will bring about a permanent shift in consumer behaviour, we have reasons to believe that Covid-19 may lead to lasting changes in shopping habits, as restrictions limit Italians’ ability to buy goods in physical shops.
- The shift towards e-commerce will bring about structural changes to Italy’s logistics sector and our latest forecasts show a further upward revision for logistics and downward revision for retail. We forecast above average total returns for Italian logistics over the five-year forecast period (2021-2024) despite the Italian economy being the hardest hit in our outlook. In line with this, the logistics sector has been given a tactical overweight with respect to the benchmark in our model portfolio.
On 31 January 2020, the first two cases of Covid-19 were registered in Italy. Over the following weeks, the virus spread throughout the country and by the second week of March, Italy was under full lockdown with Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte saying the country was facing a ‘national emergency’. In addition to the panic buying prompted by the virus, consumer behaviour was more broadly affected by the strict containment measures adopted by the government. Not only did consumers see a reduction in their ability to shop around, but more importantly, the country witnessed a distinct shift in demand towards e-commerce. With Italy amongst the lowest in Europe in terms of e-commerce penetration, could this pandemic act as the catalyst that spurs the Italians into the world of online shopping? This white paper looks at the evolution of e-commerce in Italy to date and raises questions as to whether this crisis could be the trigger for behavioural change in a country where shopping in stores has long been engrained in the national psyche. Using recent data on consumer trends, we share our insights into how these may evolve beyond the crisis and look at the potential impact on the Italian logistics sector.
E-COMMERCE PENETRATION AND RETAIL SALES VOLUMES ARE LOW, BUT GROWTH RATES ARE ROBUST
Italy has one of the lowest rates of e-commerce penetration in Europe at 5% of total retail revenues, according to Euromonitor. This falls well short of the UK’s 17% or China’s 24%, yet the Italian e-commerce landscape is evolving rapidly. Forecasts published prior to the coronavirus outbreak showed Italy overtaking several European countries by 2024, with internet sales penetration reaching 10%, ahead of its wealthy northern neighbour Switzerland as well as Iberia and only slightly behind France’s 12%. Interestingly, Italy was to be the only country to expect a doubling in percentage over the next five years (from 5% to 10%). In terms of revenue, forecasts for e-commerce were predicted to reach €22 billion in 2024 versus €15 billion in 2019, showing an increase of 52%, with the fashion segment seeing the biggest rise. Compared to offline commerce, which has seen the disappearance of 63,000 stores (-11%) in the last 10 years, the number of companies that registered to online commerce in Italy in 2019 was 6,968 (i.e. 20% more than 2018) and businesses whose main source of revenue is e-commerce now stands at 68% compared to 54% a year earlier. Whilst from a European perspective, Italy ranks amongst the lowest in terms of online average spend (€668 per user per year), when viewed as a percentage of income, Italy is amongst the highest in Europe.
The low rate of e-commerce in Italy is due to a variety of socio-demographic factors and supply side limitations, including lower broadband penetration, less use of credit cards, concerns over internet security and a large, ageing population with a lower propensity to shop online. Other barriers to entry for e-commerce have included high transport costs, poor delivery infrastructure and, perhaps more relevantly, fewer retailers with an online presence. These factors explain why Italians have always chosen to shop at their local bricks-and-mortar store and why the online food market is estimated to be worth only €1.6bn yearly, a fraction of the UK’s €13bn.
REGIONAL VARIATIONS ARE PRONOUNCED
As with so many different aspects of Italy, the north-south divide is also evident when looking at online purchasing trends. The maps below show internet access and online purchases by region. In 2019, the wealthier, northern parts of Italy had the highest percentage of internet users, with Trento leading the way with 92% of the population with internet access and Emilia-Romagna ranking second (90%). Unsurprisingly, online purchasing was much higher here than the national average. On the other hand – except for Sardinia – all the southern regions had below average rates of online purchasing. In Campania, less than a quarter of the region’s population made an online purchase last year. Interestingly, initiatives do exist to educate the less developed regions to the benefit of e-commerce. The Italian Electronic Trade Association launched their ‘Compra da Casa’ campaign to urge people across all regions to think about increasing their online spending.
THE LOCKDOWN HAS BROUGHT ABOUT A SURGE IN ONLINE SHOPPING ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Statistics show that life under lockdown has changed behaviours considerably. Since the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent quarantine, online shopping in Italy has surged, growing at triple digit rates in the last three weeks of March, most of which was driven by the grocery sector. Italy saw the number of online customers at its most dominant supermarket chain Carrefour double to 110,000 in the space of three weeks in March and sales via its partnership with logistics start-up Glovo – which delivers certain items in 30 minutes or less in Italian cities – go up tenfold over the same period. According to Nielsen, online shopping turnover grew by a substantial 142% y/y in the week beginning March 16th alone. Looking at the share of the population which purchased online in the week beginning 28th February compared to week beginning March 12th, we observe a whopping increase of 250%, the highest increase of all countries surveyed. Looking specifically at sales figures for Amazon (the most popular online store in Italy) during the lockdown period, there was exceptional growth from when the limited quarantine began to when full lockdown was implemented (March 9th). Whilst ‘Fitness & Gym’ was the category to see the biggest increase in sales (347%), food also saw a sharp increase of 47% in the initial weeks of lockdown. These figures illustrate how the calls for social distancing and state-official closures led to an immediate surge in e-commerce sales.
COVID-19 MAY PROMPT MORE LASTING CHANGES IN SHOPPING HABITS IN ITALY
So, the question is: will these new consumer behaviours outlast the crisis? It is, of course, too early to tell whether the lockdown will bring about a permanent shift in Italy’s consumer behaviour. As the crisis first unfolded, it was felt that the shift towards e-commerce would only be temporary rather than longer term, and there were several reasons for this. First, it was felt that the initial rise in online sales during the lockdown largely reflected necessity rather than choice as non-essential stores were closed and customers were instructed to stay indoors. It was also felt that the structural reasons that have held Italian e-commerce back for so long were unlikely to change overnight. On the United Nation’s latest E-Commerce index which tracks bank account ownership, internet usage, postal reliability and security of internet servers, Italy still ranks one of the lowest in the Eurozone. And culturally, Italians have always preferred shopping in stores, a habit which would seem hard to shift. Indeed, it would seem obvious to expect a pronounced return to shopping in stores once restrictions had eased as it has been months since Italians have had the social experience of shopping.
However, as social distancing continues to be part of everyday life, consumer habits are slowly adapting in real-time to the new environment and circumstances and we now have more reason to believe that Covid-19 may in fact lead to a more lasting change in shopping habits in Italy than was initially thought. In a recent survey conducted by Ipsos, Italian customers stated that in the current landscape they preferred to spend less on their shopping and only buy what was necessary. Furthermore, Italian shoppers indicated a clear dislike for queuing for essential goods whilst social distancing measures were in place (70% of respondents). Indeed, lingering mobility restrictions suggest that the social element of shopping has been greatly curtailed (i.e. look and feel different). Increasingly, brand loyalty is a low priority for consumers, whilst product availability and speed of access is of the utmost importance. Overall, we predict that Italian consumers will be slow to come back to brick-and-mortar retailers following the Covid-19 pandemic and that most of the e-commerce business will continue to go to the biggest players such as Amazon, Zalando or Esselunga. Luxury purchases for which Italy was so famous for will likely decline significantly as consumers continue to reduce their discretionary spending. Whilst it is too early to quantify Covid-19’s total financial toll on the sector, if we consider that 40% of global luxury-goods production happens in Italy and consider the impact of the pandemic on Italy’s fashion heartland (i.e. shut factories, cancelled trade shows, etc.), that ‘Made in Italy’ aura for high-end goods that the country is so famous for will inevitably have taken a hit.
We would also add that the cultural argument of Italians preferring to shop in stores holds less true today than it did in the past. In a recent survey conducted by Nepa, it was shown that Italians living in countries with more developed e-commerce markets than Italy (i.e. UK, China, Germany) formed a large share of online shoppers (even if these were largely millennials).
As Italy becomes increasingly developed and sophisticated in terms of its overall infrastructure (increased internet usage, improved timeliness of shipments, etc.), we believe that its population will welcome in a new way to shop. According to recent data by Confimprese – the national association of retailers – Italians reduced their spending on fashion and clothing goods by 24.9% during the first quarter of the year compared to the same period the previous year and by a whopping 82.3% in the month of March alone given the uncertainty and the evolution of the epidemic. In terms of distribution, the lockdown and consequent travel ban caused overall sales to drop 86% in airports and train stations in March, decreasing 30% in the first quarter. Sales in malls and outlets also decreased 82 and 83% respectively, in March, whilst independent retailers located in smaller towns or in suburbs showed slightly more resilience. This would suggest that the shopping centre sector will take longer to recover from the crisis than the high-street segment.
E-COMMERCE IS DRIVING THE SUCCESS OF ITALIAN LOGISTICS
So, what does this mean for the Italian logistics sector? In 2019, investment in the logistics segment was over €1.3 billion, exceeding volumes from the previous two years. This was an especially strong result when we consider that the Italian logistics market has never exceeded €500 million in transactions before 2016. 2017 was a record year, but it was largely on the back of the Logicor portfolio deal. The investment trend in the last two years reflects both the development and maturing of the market. The number of international investors operating in Italy has grown progressively, as has their overall contribution to investment volumes. Investment has been focused around Rome, owing to the large population base and large cargo airport, as well as around the Lombardy and Emilia Romagna regions. The quality of stock is generally dated and inefficient, making modern logistics facilities highly sought after by both tenants and investors. Furthermore, land prices and construction costs are high, while obtaining planning can be arduous. This has curtailed speculative development to date and is a key reason why we continue to forecast Milan logistics as one of the best performing markets in term of rental growth prospects; this despite the current crisis.
E-commerce is the main driver of the Italian logistics sector because of the growing demand for logistics space from companies running sales platforms but also because of the dissemination of retailers adopting omni-channel strategies. Indeed, 3PLs and retailers continue to be the most active occupiers in the market. Observing the positive market trends, it is unsurprising that Amazon1 should select Italy as one of its principal expansion markets in Western Europe; the tech giant has taken up 300,000 sq m of logistics space in the last 18 months. The Covid-19 lockdown has brought about an acceleration of the ongoing process of e-commerce and whilst there will be limits as to how far this expansion can go, the Italian logistics sector will continue to show a promising outlook both in terms of demand and investment. Indeed, whilst the exceptional levels of e-commerce seen during the crisis is unlikely to be sustainable in the longer term, we expect retailers and logistics warehousing to continue to drive the market for the foreseeable future and for take-up by 3PLs and retailers to continue to be strong.
There is no doubt that life under quarantine has altered behaviour and having analysed the figures, we believe that new consumer habits can outlast the crisis. According to Casaleggio Associati, 76% of Italian e-commerce users made an online purchase within the past year, as against the European average of 64%, highlighting a gradual shift in mindset. As demand from e-commerce operators has increased in recent years, we can expect this trend to continue in future. What e-commerce traders and users will want, however, is a logistics chain that is able to safely cope with this demand. E-commerce in 2020 will therefore constitute a turning point and for several traders, the main problem of future growth will not be the number of clients they have but rather the logistics capacity to cope with them. Overall, structural changes are expected across the different sectors in Italy owing to this year’s Covid-19 pandemic which in turn have driven some notable changes to our latest forecasts. The acceleration of e-commerce is reflected in our upward forecast revisions for logistics and downward revisions for retail. In line with this, the industrial sector has been given a tactical overweight with respect to the benchmark in our model portfolio.