Voice of the Industry

Cross-border ecommerce in the COVID-19 era and beyond

Tuesday 2 February 2021 10:35 CET | Editor: Alex Guzu | Voice of the industry

Cosmin Dan from Euromonitor International provides a comprehensive overview of the current landscape in cross-border payments, sharing insights into relevant regions, key players, and upcoming trends

The COVID-19 effect on global retailing in 2020 was beyond any other we experienced. However, in a context defined by lockdowns, social distancing, mobility limitations, or contactless shopping, ecommerce thrived and continued to grow, reaching USD 2.4 trillion globally. With major parts of our existence – work, school, communication, entertainment etc. – switched to online, a growing number of the 4.2 billion internet users (54% of the world’s population) sustained the growth of online sales.

Within ecommerce, cross-border transactions are set to post a growth of 24% in 2020. This is a deceleration compared to the past few years when as a result of e-tailers’ expansion, improved logistics, rising consumer confidence, and overall online sales and online payments penetration, foreign purchases became increasingly popular among consumers. Due to the disruptions in supply chains, delivery, and other operational areas, cross-border was negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but foreign sales quickly bounced back as soon as the global economies started to reopen. As a result, it maintained its share in ecommerce at 11% in 2020, and it is expected to resume its growth and penetration, to reach USD 500 billion globally by 2025.

Asia–Pacific, by far the most important region for cross-border ecommerce

With cross-border sales of more than USD 100 billion in 2020, China takes a comfortable first place globally. This is not surprising, considering that China also represents the biggest market for ecommerce, as well posting one of the strongest penetrations of online sales in total retailing. Cross-border ecommerce happens almost entirely through popular online marketplaces, such as Tmall Global, where many international brands are selling their products. Rising incomes in the country led to a growing demand for imported products.

Canada and Russia follow in top three biggest cross-border ecommerce markets. Neighbouring Canada, the US has long been considered an option for shopping across the border, and the transition to online sales came naturally. Amazon and eBay lead ecommerce in Canada, with a significant part of their sales generated cross-border. In Russia, AliExpress operates as a venture between the Chinese parent company Alibaba and Russian partners. Ranking second in the overall online sales, it is the main contributor to the country’s cross-border sales. While planning to increase its share of Russian sellers, the marketplace is currently dominated by purchases made from China.

In some cases, online sales from abroad can count for more than 60%-70% or, as extremes, even more than 90% of ecommerce – in marginal markets such as Costa Rica or the Dominican Republic. The high share of purchases made from abroad is usually explained by a very underdeveloped online channel locally and by a strong presence of popular players in neighbouring countries.

Amazon and Alibaba drive the globalisation in ecommerce

The two online giants have a clear focus on their domestic markets, the US and China respectively, but a wide global footprint. Amazon built its local presence – and solid logistics – in important markets such as Japan, UK, or Germany, favouring local sellers and reducing the cross-border sales. From a different angle, these hubs also serve as sources for cross-border purchases for other countries in their proximity.

For example, Alibaba’s AliExpress has a significantly different positioning, which is focused on bargains, with free or low-priced shipment, but extended delivery time that takes weeks. To fix this, Alibaba plans to develop fulfilment centres in different parts of the world, one such example being in Belgium. Naturally successful in emerging markets, AliExpress is under increasing pressure from faster growing local players and other cross-border players. One such example is in Russia, Alibaba’s main market outside of China.

The emergence or quick growth of smaller cross-border ecommerce players in recent years showed that there is room for new entries, which can challenge the established brands with mobile oriented strategies, social media focus, influencer marketing etc. Two good examples could be Wish or Shein. In cross-border ecommerce, apparel and footwear, beauty products, or electronics remain the popular categories, even during the COVID-19 pandemic when the demand for non-essential products plummeted.

The current context allowed experiments with new online sales channels

While livestreaming ecommerce exploded in China in recent years, North America and Europe are only now pioneering it. The mix of social commerce, live streaming, content creation, and influencer marketing is the new experiment in ecommerce. This model is targeting a young audience, in a hybrid of marketing and entertainment. Alibaba made public earlier in 2020 its intentions to build a European network of content creators that could support its livestreaming ecommerce sales expansion. However, replicating the Chinese success story in Europe might be challenging due to the variety in languages, set-up costs, and overall cultural diversity.


Cross-border ecommerce is here to stay. 26% of Euromonitor International’s Lifestyles Survey respondents ticked the ability to buy products/brands not available in the local market as one of the most important online shopping motivation factors in 2020. With the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating the transformations in the retailing industry, ecommerce posts the best prospects for growth over the next years, while cross-border sales are expected to continue to increase their share.

Definitions note: Euromonitor International’s methodology tracks under cross-border ecommerce only the sales of products between businesses and consumers (B2C), excluding trades between businesses (B2B) or consumers (C2C), as well as all services. To be considered cross-border, the products need to be shipped from outside the country where the online order is delivered.

This editorial was first published in our Cross-Border Payments and Ecommerce Report 2020–2021, which assesses the change of pace that occurred in 2020 and provides a comprehensive overview of the major trends driving growth in this space, being the ultimate source of information for players interested in selling across borders.

About Cosmin Dan

Cosmin Dan is a consultant at Euromonitor International, with a focus on Services and Payments, and more than six years of experience in the industry. He advises clients across a range of industries on the latest developments, identifying and validating key trends, to support tactical and strategic decisions.

About Euromonitor International

Euromonitor International is the world’s leading provider for global business intelligence, market analysis, and consumer insights. Our research solutions support decisions on how, where, and when to grow your business. With offices around the world, analysts in over 100 countries, the latest data science techniques and market research on every key trend and driver, we help you make sense of global markets.

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Keywords: Cosmin Dan, Euromonitor International, cross-border, ecommerce, COVID-19, APAC, Russia, Canada, US, China
Categories: Payments & Commerce
Countries: World
This article is part of category

Payments & Commerce