Analysis: Luxury E-Commerce in 2016 (Part 1)

After a slump in 2015, most BRIC nations are showing more promise this year, our analyst says.

Omar El Ali's avatar
Omar El Ali

June 30, 2016


This is Part 1 in a 2-part series. Read Part 2 here.

Last year, we took a close look at the luxury e-commerce sector, keen to provide valuable insights on hot emerging markets and analysis on long-maturing markets. We identified key luxury e-commerce challenges for BRIC countries, and recommended four thriving markets for online expansion: India, Iran, Thailand and Poland.

We’re revisiting those markets—and several more—in this two-part blog series.

As we mentioned last year, luxury retail has historically been reluctant to embrace e-commerce, but new breeds of global luxury consumers are forcing the industry to adapt. For instance, young, affluent shoppers are practical, connected to the Internet, and are less concerned about the intimate consultative sales experience a brick-and-mortar retailer provides. They buy on their phones, not in-store.

Further, global consumers of all ages-particularly in China-smartly use foreign exchange rates to maximise the value of their money, which often results in cross-border luxury purchases.

We’ve seen positive growth in this sector since last year. Luxury online sales reached $25 billion in 2015, representing only about half of the luxury market online potential, analysts say. Indeed, one study suggests that about 90% of luxury shoppers visit the official websites of the brands they’re considering. Nearly one-third of these shoppers will switch brand allegiance if they can’t make a purchase from those sites. Ouch.

Global consumers want luxury products, and they're increasingly wanting to purchase them online. But which are the best markets for luxury e-retailers to serve with localised online shopping experiences? Let's take a look at BRIC markets first.

How is BRIC Faring?

Last year, we suggested that luxury brands would be better off expanding into smaller emerging markets than launching online endeavours in most BRIC nations. We cited uncertainty caused in the two previous years, caused mostly by fluctuations in fuel prices and changes in the international political landscape. (India got a pass last year, and was on our recommended list. You'll read more about India in Part 2 of this series.) This year brought some good news for some of these markets. However, challenges remain that luxury companies-and in-market luxury consumers-can expect to face conducting business both online and off.

Here’s a breakdown:


The tough times aren’t over for Brazil. As seen last year, the country’s economy continues a precipitous downturn driven in large part by the sagging economy of China, its largest trading partner. The end result: Brazil is facing its biggest recession in 30 years.

The market’s GDP shrank nearly 4% during 2015, its largest decline since 1990. This contraction continued into Q1 of 2016, decreasing by 0.3%. Impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff in April shoved the country’s economy into further uncertainty.

This turmoil is impacting all local industries, not just luxury retail. One MotionPoint hospitality client has seen its Brazil site traffic drop an average of 6% each month for several months.

Last year, Brazil’s Internet penetration was 53%. This year, it’s at 66% and rising. That’s a step in the right direction, but it can’t outpace the market’s tremendous economic challenges, or six other key issues facing luxury e-commerce operators:

  • Brazilian luxury consumers still prefer to engage in traditional “in person” experiences with salespeople
  • In Brazil, paying for products in installments—known as parcelas—is a tradition that extends into luxury retail
  • Luxury buyers tend to buy on credit, which is not interest free. This increases the prices of products, due to increasing interest rates
  • Increasingly, Brazilians are renting home properties rather than buying. Rising rental prices are forcing most consumers to channel extra savings towards life expenses, and not luxury items
  • Our analysis suggests that well-known European luxury brands fare better in this market than American brands, or new luxury brands. This typically hails from a brand’s lack of cultural fluency
  • Brazil's middle class is shrinking. Last year, 2.6 million Brazilians fell out of "middle and upper middle" classes, while another 3.7 million dropped out of the "lower middle" class

With so many current challenges, Brazil remains a market only for the brave.


Russia's economy is taking a beating this year. The ruble and Russian stock market tanked after a dip in oil prices, triggered by disagreements among oil-producing nations during an April summit in Qatar. The European Union may extend its sanctions against Russia in response to Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The picture gets even gloomier when examining Morgan Stanley’s analysis. “(W)e expect further moderate deterioration,” the company wrote, and “expect growth to stay in negative territory.”

Morgan Stanley forecasts the country’s federal deficit to widen 4.2% of GDP, and the market’s current account surplus to narrow from 5.6% of GDP in 2015 to 3.8% this year.

There are glimmers of hope for the luxury sector, however. According to our analysis, Russian luxury retail remains surprisingly resilient due to:

  • Chinese tourists flock to Russia-up nearly 70% last year alone-thanks its geographic proximity and very favourable exchange rate. They’re spending lots of money at Moscow and Saint Petersburg luxury shops; one luxury department store claimed nearly 20% of its clientele is now Chinese
  • The Chinese renminbi (RMB) to Russian ruble exchange rate has increased, making Chinese luxury product prices 70% higher in China than in Russia
  • The drop in the ruble's value cut Russian luxury spending in Europe by nearly 40%. Russians are spending at local luxury retailers again to get the most from their money

We recently examined the sales performance for a MotionPoint e-commerce client that sells multiple fashion brands in Russia. When we compared the sales of a particular luxury brand from Q1 2015 and Q1 2016, we noticed an increase of 209% in revenue. That's intriguing, and promising, news.

However, luxury brands should be aware that Russians prefer to pay for e-commerce transactions with Cash on Delivery. Foreign companies serving this market must be flexible and support this, and other locally-preferred, payment options.


The Chinese economy has definitely seen better days, but—as we’ve previously reported on this blog—its future is far from bleak. In fact, the economy stabilised during May, generating a 6.9% gain in GDP. Retail sales increased by 10%.

But that doesn’t mean China’s economy is out of the woods. The International Monetary Fund expressed concern for its medium-term outlook, citing “rapidly rising credit, structural excess capacity, and the increasingly large, opaque, and interconnected financial sector.”

Interestingly, Chinese consumers are deftly adapting to the economic reality, and have been increasing their luxury spending—reversing a two-year decline. According to The Wall Street Journal, online luxury sales grew by 20% last year, nearly three times faster than the global average. Mobile is playing an increasingly important role in China: smartphone-based searches for luxury brands rose nearly 45% last year, nearly twice the number of comparable searches made on desktop PCs.

Further, Chinese shoppers are driving overall growth in luxury spending, accounting for nearly one-third of all spending worldwide.

The market certainly looks promising for luxury e-retailers, though some challenges remain, including:

Cross-Border Tax: In April, the Chinese government introduced a new tax policy that imposes value-added taxes and consumption taxes on products hailing from foreign countries. This directly impacts the luxury cross-border e-commerce sector, as only products with a value of 2,000 RMB (around $308 US) or less won’t be hit with these fees.

Renminbi Exchange Rate: As mentioned previously, exchange rates and unbalanced global economies are encouraging Chinese customers to shop in overseas markets such as Russia, Japan and Western Europe to maximise their buying power.

Regulations: There are currently fewer Chinese consumer-protection regulations for online sales, which can reduce the likelihood of Chinese consumers making big-ticket purchases on luxury e-retail sites.

However, e-commerce is growing in the market, which bodes well for luxury e-retailers. Even with the current challenges, Chinese consumers are still buying online, thanks mainly to:

Low Prices: Consumers generally get better pricing online compared to physical stores. Even China’s new value-added and consumption taxes mentioned above can’t overpower the savings shoppers experience by importing many luxury items.

Combating Counterfeit Products: Counterfeit products have long plagued the Chinese market. But purchasing luxury products from official brand websites eliminates that risk.

Superior Product Availability: China is a really big country (comparable in size to the U.S.), and driving to a luxury brick-and-mortar store can literally take hours. Even at these stores, product selections can be limited. A luxury e-commerce site that serves China eliminates those issues.

Online Spending Confidence: Chinese consumers’ confidence in e-commerce is increasing constantly. According to a recent report, they’re now spending up to RMB 4,200 (about $641 US) for luxury products online, nearly 45% more than last year.

Over time, with more consumer-protection regulations and transparency in place, we expect this number to rapidly increase in upcoming years.

To Be Continued…

Next week, we’ll share insights on new emerging markets that are primed for luxury e-commerce, and review last year’s predictions to see how well our “four hot markets” fared. Read Part 2 here!

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