SINGAPORE — From dresses to handbags, diamonds to music downloads, consumers in Asia are taking to Internet shopping as never before, making the region one of the world's fastest-growing e-commerce markets.
"I like to shop for clothes online because no sales girls will pester me," said Cecelia Wang, a 23-year-old university student in Taipei who said she spent about 1,500 Taiwan dollars, about $43, each month on Internet purchases. "For online shopping, all I need to do is sit in my room and shop, which is great."
Internet retailing is increasingly making its presence felt in Asia because telecommunications infrastructure has improved and payment, a major obstacle to online shopping, is increasingly secure, analysts say.
Internet penetration rates, the percentage of the population that has Internet access, is about 17 percent in Asia versus 73 percent in North America and almost 50 percent in Europe, according to www.internetworldstats.com.
As more people in countries like China and India get hooked up to the Internet, online sales are expected to rise by an average of 20 percent a year. In some markets, including Japan, they are expected to increase by as much as 40 percent annually.
"There is a huge opportunity for retailers in Asia-Pacific to benefit from the cost-savings of operating online," said Sandra Hanchard, a senior analyst at Hitwise, an "online intelligence service" subsidiary of Experian Group.
"Surfing the Internet is now a mainstream lifestyle activity," Hanchard said. "More and more traditional retailers are realizing that this is an opportunity to connect directly with consumers."
Although the global economic downturn has affected both traditional and online retailers, analysts say the gloomy economic outlook is actually encouraging consumers to hunt for second-hand goods online or make greater use of auction and rental Web sites, like www.thatbagiwant.com.
Asia's technology-savvy online shoppers buy everything from flowers to airline tickets. Online games like mah-jongg are gaining popularity in Taiwan. In Hong Kong and Australia, shoppers are drawn to overseas retailers' Web sites.
Amazon.com and eBay are among the most popular sites in Asia. On eBay India, which has more than two million registered users, top purchases in 2008 included gemstones, mobile handsets, MP3 players, women's apparel and Indian stamps and coins, said Deepa Thomas, eBay India's senior manager of pop culture.
The company's sales show that despite relatively low Internet penetration, Indians have readily embraced online shopping. "Earlier, people only bought easily affordable items, but now they're also buying more high-value items and unusual items, as they have more confidence shopping online," Thomas said.
The market research firm Euromonitor International forecasts that Internet retail sales in the Asia-Pacific region will have doubled in 2012 from 2007, reaching more than $71 billion by 2012.
Asia still lags behind the United States, where Forrester Research says that online spending in 2008 was $141 billion and could reach $156 billion this year.
In the United States, online sales at retailers like Best Buy and Macy's continue to grow despite the recession and weaker physical store sales.
Hanchard says that online retailing in the Asia-Pacific region has been slow to develop, compared with its use in Europe and the United States, partly because retailers have not put as much money into their online channels.
In Australia, broadband speed and worries about payment security have also acted as deterrents. Improvements in Internet technology and signs that more consumers are shopping online in Asia is encouraging some retailers to take better advantage of online distribution channels.
RR Australia, owner of Radio Rentals, Australia's largest household appliances rental company, started an online electrical store called Big Brown Box in November, in part because Australians cannot order electronics from Web sites abroad because of differences in voltage and electrical sockets.
"We know that the appetite for consumers' purchasing online is growing by the day," said RR Australia's managing director, John Hughes. "There are many people who are very time-poor, relative to their ability to actually get out there and shop."
What is interesting, say analysts at KPMG, is that the online retail sales market is expanding in more mature markets, including Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. These are countries that possess some of the world's most effective communication services and high penetration for broadband Internet access.
In Taiwan, online shopping transactions rose 32.3 percent to 243 billion dollars last year, the Institute for Information Industry said, with most online shoppers buying clothes, accessories, beauty and health products. A Visa e-Commerce Tracking survey of 3,000 Internet users in Australia, India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong found that the average amount of spending online in a 12-month period ending in April 2008 was $3,000.
Source : New York Times