Breaking into ecommerce in Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, has been a struggle for U.S. heavyweights Amazon.com Inc. and Walmart Inc. And that’s a big reason that local players, including those that operate bricks-and-mortar stores, remain formidable foes for the U.S. retail giants in the online retail market in Latin America.
Retail chains—companies that operates physical stores as well as selling online—accounted for 49.0% of online retail sales by the 500 leading web retailers in Latin America, according to Internet Retailer’s 2018 Latin America 500. That compares with 38.7% for companies like Amazon and Brazilian web-only retailer B2W Digital (No. 1 in the Latin America 500) that sell primarily online, 8.4% for consumer brand manufacturers and 4.0% for retailers that got their start selling through print catalogs and TV shopping shows.
What’s more, retail chains grew their web sales by 19.7% in 2017 over 2016, which is faster than web-only merchants (14.5%), catalogers (14.8%) and consumer brand manufacturers (7.9%).
Walmart is the only U.S. retail chain in the Top 10 in Latin America ecommerce, ranking No. 3 in the regional rankings based on 2017 online sales. But three Latin America-based retail chains make the Top 10, led by SACI Falabella of Chile, which is No. 2.
Walmart and Amazon (No. 4 in the Latin America 500) both are major players in ecommerce in Mexico, the region’s second-largest economy, but Brazil has proven a tougher nut to crack. Walmart sold 80% of its stake in its Brazilian operation in 2018, seeking to focus on more profitable international opportunities. Foreign companies often complain about Brazil’s complex tax regulations, import restrictions and other impediments to foreign businesses seeking to sell in the country.
Amazon, meanwhile, began selling books and its Kindle readers online in Brazil in 2012, began in 2017 offering goods from outside merchants on its Brazilian site, Amazon.com.br, and only in 2019 began selling its own goods. But now that Amazon has begun to offer a wider variety of goods, it figures to be a bigger force in Brazilian ecommerce.
Solid online growth
Overall, the 500 retailers and brands ranked in the Latin America 500 increased their online sales by 16.4% in 2017, helped by economic recovery in Brazil after two years of recession. Brazil’s gross domestic product grew by 1% in 2017 after shrinking by 3.5% in each of the two prior years.
Brazil’s rebound helped increase total retail sales in Latin America by 4.8% in 2017 to $1.893 billion, according to research firm eMarketer. While the Latin America 500’s growth of 16.4% meant those retailers took retail market share in 2017, they still represented just over 1.4% of retail sales in the region that year. By contrast, Internet Retailer’s Top 500 retailers, ranked by North American sales, accounted for 8.6% of retail sales in the U.S. and Canada in 2017.
However, it’s important to note that the Latin America 500 does not include sales on online marketplaces—as those companies don’t sell merchandise that they own, but rather offer a platform for other sellers. And that’s particularly significant in Latin America, where marketplace operator Mercado Libre of Argentina remains the largest ecommerce player. The value of goods sold on Mercado Libre’s 18 Latin American online marketplaces totaled $11.749 billion, according to Internet Retailer, an increase of 46.0% over 2016, and more than double the web sales of Latin America 500 leader B2W Digital.
Adding Mercado Libre’s sales to those of the Latin America 500 retailers would bring their combined web sales to $39.2 billion, or 2.1% of the region’s total retail sales. But that relatively low penetration shows that there is still plenty of room for ecommerce growth in Latin America.