Consumers worldwide spent nearly $4.29 trillion online in a pandemic-fueled 2020, up from almost $3.46 trillion the prior year, according to Digital Commerce 360 estimates. The 24.1% year-over-year jump in global web sales was an increase from 17.9% growth in 2019. The acceleration after years of slowdowns was driven by unprecedented online growth in the United States ecommerce market, but tempered by a less robust performance in China.
Global retail sales through all channels hit $21.21 trillion last year, just a 1.0% uptick from $21.00 trillion in 2019, Digital Commerce 360 estimates. That means online’s share of total retail sales crossed 20.0%, with ecommerce accounting for all retail growth and gains in the online sector more than offsetting declines in store sales.
Historically, digital penetration rises each year as consumers get increasingly comfortable shopping online and retailers fine-tune ecommerce operations to deliver orders more quickly and efficiently. But COVID-19 magnified trend lines in a big way in 2020.
Globally, more than $1 in every $5 that went toward the purchase of consumer goods last year was spent on the web, Digital Commerce 360 estimates. Online penetration hit 20.2%, up from 16.4% in 2019 and 14.4% in 2018. The nearly four percentage-point gain in ecommerce penetration is a major headline, as anything around a two percentage-point bump in digital share over the preceding year is typically noteworthy.
Big markets’ share of global ecommerce
The world’s two largest economies—the United States and China—dominate global online retailing. Together, these two powerhouses have accounted for more than half of the worldwide digital sales of physical goods for years. In 2020, the pair amassed nearly $2.29 trillion in web sales, representing 53.3% of the global ecommerce market. But that was down from 55.1% in 2019 after years of growing market share, signifying that other countries gained ground on the largest players in an unusual year.
A number of markets outpaced both the U.S. and China with higher online growth: In North America, Canadian ecommerce skyrocketed by 71.2% last year after rising just 22.1% in 2019, according to data from Statistics Canada, a government-run agency. And in Mexico—a very low-penetrated country—online sales swelled an incredible 81.0% in 2020, according to the Mexican Association of Online Sales, or AMVO.
In Europe, the United Kingdom grew ecommerce by 36.0% last year, according to IMRG, the country’s online retail association. And online product sales in France climbed 32.0%, according to FEVAD, the country’s ecommerce federation. Additionally, Russia boosted digital sales by 45.0% in 2020 while Brazil’s ecommerce market saw even higher growth at 66%, Euromonitor reports to Bloomberg.
The U.S.’s banner year in ecommerce
Despite major surges in smaller markets, just the year-over-year gain in online revenue dollars alone for the U.S. during 2020 was larger than all but a few total ecommerce markets across the world. And as usual, the country had an outsized impact on the overall landscape in global online retail.
The U.S. is second among the biggest markets for ecommerce—behind only China—and comprised 18.5% of global digital sales. As shoppers turned to the web in wildly inflated numbers as the pandemic raged, consumers spent an astounding 32.4% more online with U.S. merchants than in 2019, according to U.S. Department of Commerce retail data. Ecommerce hit $791.70 billion in 2020, up from $598.02 billion the prior year.
That’s the highest annual U.S. ecommerce growth of any year for which data is available and also more than double the 15.1% year-over-year jump reported by the Commerce Department in 2019.
Ecommerce penetration hit 19.6% last year in the U.S., Digital Commerce 360 estimates. That’s up from 15.8% in 2019 and 14.3% in 2018. The nearly four percentage-point gain in online’s share of total retail sales during 2020 is by far the largest year-over-year uptick in penetration ever recorded. No other year has registered even a two percentage-point bump in digital share over the preceding year.
Sales through all channels reached $4.04 trillion last year in the U.S., up from $3.78 trillion in 2019, according to a Digital Commerce 360 analysis of Commerce Department data. The sizable 6.9% lift—the highest annual growth since 1999—was surprising after a year marked by store closures, lingering consumer anxiety over being in public spaces and the enormous boost to ecommerce. After all, total retail increased just 4.0% in 2019.
Digital Commerce 360 studies non-seasonally adjusted Commerce Department data and excludes spending in segments that don’t typically sell online, such as restaurants, bars, automobile dealers, gas stations and fuel dealers.
But online sales drove nearly three-quarters—or 74.6%—of the gains in total retail in 2020, and that’s the highest share of overall annual growth ecommerce has ever represented. It’s also nearly 11 percentage points higher than the 2008 share, which came in second place, and substantially higher than online’s 54.0% share of spending gains in 2019. But interestingly, the fact that ecommerce didn’t account for all gains means that offline—or primarily in-store—sales grew 2.1%, which is the same rate as pandemic-free prior 2019.
The U.S.’s record-breaking online performance was a major contributor to the health of the global ecommerce market in 2020. In fact, excluding the U.S., global web sales increased by 22.4% year over year in 2020—lower than the 24.1% with the U.S. That’s because the growth in China’s ecommerce market slowed last year.
China’s web sales growth slows in 2020
China’s numbers typically overshadow the U.S., as online sales in the country have been more than double domestic ecommerce revenue for years. But the U.S. made a little headway in 2020, closing the gap a bit after increasing web sales by $193.68 billion to China’s $189.18 billion gain, according to currency-converted data from the National Bureau of Statistics of China, a government agency. Still, China accounted for more than a third—34.9%—of all ecommerce across the world in 2020.
The online sales of physical goods reached nearly 9.76 trillion yuan, or roughly $1.49 trillion, in China last year, up from more than 8.52 trillion yuan, or roughly $1.31 trillion, in 2019. But the 14.5% rise in digital revenue was a deceleration from 21.4% year-over-year growth in 2019. While percentage changes often taper off over time as figures get larger and growth is harder to achieve, pandemic-related shifts in consumer behavior led to many markets bucking that trend in 2020. So it’s notable that China didn’t see the same rise in ecommerce growth. Especially in light of the online sales jump in the U.S. of 32.4%—more than double that of its Asian counterpart.
While China’s ecommerce gains gave a boost to the country’s floundering overall retail performance in 2020, it wasn’t enough to offset an 11.2% decline in the offline sales of goods.
Total retail sales of consumer goods excluding automobiles hit nearly 35.26 trillion yuan, or roughly $5.40 trillion, in 2020, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China. That’s a 5.3% decline from almost 37.23 trillion yuan, or roughly $5.70 trillion, the year before. The dropoff in sales through all channels is a big swing from 2019, when retail climbed 8.8%. Here, again, the retail landscape in China proved to be quite different from the U.S., where overall retail had a banner year.
China’s ecommerce penetration continued to lead all countries with more than a quarter of the sales of goods—27.7%—occurring online in 2020. That’s up from 22.9% in 2019 and 20.5% in 2018. The country’s 2020 online gains paired with a decline in overall retail meant digital share surged 4.8 percentage points in a 12-month period—double the year-over-year lift in 2019 and higher than the U.S.’s 3.8 percentage-point increase last year. With more than $1 in every $4 now spent online in China, the ecommerce penetration gap between both countries widened in 2020, with an 8.1 percentage-point difference between the two.
Marketplaces account for nearly two-thirds of global ecommerce
Much of the story in ecommerce continues to center on the world’s biggest online marketplaces, including Amazon.com Inc. in the U.S. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Tmall and Taobao, both dominant forces in China. All of the third-party selling platforms ranked in the 2021 Digital Commerce 360 Top 100 Online Marketplaces sold nearly $2.68 trillion in 2020. That’s up 29.0% from nearly $2.08 trillion the prior year. This means online marketplaces accounted for nearly two-thirds—62.5%—of global ecommerce in 2020, up from 60.1% the year before.
But the rankings are quite top heavy. Taobao, Tmall and Amazon (Nos. 1-3) represented 62.6% of the Top 100’s collective total gross merchandise value, or GMV, in 2020 and an incredible 39.1% of global ecommerce for the year.
Amazon runs a hybrid marketplace, meaning it both lists its own inventory and operates a platform through which other retailers sell their products. In 2020, the web giant’s global first-party revenue surpassed $302.99 billion, up 41.4% from nearly $214.22 billion the year before. Figures capture the sales of the company’s own products plus the commissions and fees the company received from its marketplace sellers, Amazon Prime memberships and other subscription services.
Including purchases made through third-party sellers, the value of goods sold on Amazon reached a Digital Commerce 360-estimated $475.00 billion in 2020, a 40.1% jump from $339.00 billion the year before. As consumers leaned heavily on Amazon during the pandemic, the company accelerated both first-party revenue and total GMV growth to roughly double its 2019 upticks.
It’s worth noting that Amazon grew far faster than the overall global market last year and accounted for 16.3% of all worldwide ecommerce gains. It also increased total GMV at roughly double the rate of Alibaba’s pure-play marketplace competitors.
Taobao grew its total GMV by a Digital Commerce 360-estimated 17.5% in 2020, to $609.58 billion from $518.79 billion in 2019. Tmall saw an estimated 21.0% jump over the prior year, with total GMV reaching $593.45 billion last year after hitting nearly $490.46 billion in 2019. An astonishing 80.5% of online sales in China flowed through these two marketplaces last year, and collectively, they represented 23.3% of global gains in ecommerce.
A look at the top 10 global marketplaces further reveals China’s staggering power over worldwide online retail. The country holds three spots on the list—with hybrid marketplace JD.com Inc. joining Alibaba’s biggest names—and yet, this trio brought in more than two-thirds of the total GMV of the top 10.
Percentage changes may not align exactly with dollar figures due to rounding.