A new breed of agencies are riding the online marketplace wave. Tony Walford reflects on the rise of specialist e-commerce agencies in The Drum

6th January 2023

Amazon has long led the way regarding e-commerce and has been instrumental in the shift from physical retail to online shopping. This space is expanding and changing quickly with a growing number of players opening their online estates to become a marketplace.

This has also opened the door for a new breed of agency: e-commerce specialists acting as a bridge for brands to access the increasing range of online retail platforms. These agencies are high on the ‘must have‘ list for global acquirers that need to ensure their arsenal includes such expertise.

The increased appetite for online shopping is well-documented. Retail economists stated that the pandemic-led growth propelled the trajectory of e-commerce forward by up to eight years compared with prior forecasting. Internet shopping per capita is more popular in the UK than in any other country. We are a small island with a high population per square mile, high levels of internet connectivity, strong delivery infrastructure and a vast breadth of retailers skilled in online fulfillment.

Consumer e-commerce now accounts for approximately 30% of the total UK retail market, with 82% of our population buying at least one product online in 2021 (according to the US International Trade Administration). That’s a huge statistic and, despite our size, we are the third largest adopters of e-commerce in the world – China is the biggest, followed by the US, then ourselves.

Towering above the rest

If we exclude the B2C retailers and focus purely on marketplaces, Amazon remains the UK market leader with approximately 38%, followed by Ebay at 28%. There is then a big drop to the following pack – which includes Wayfair, Etsy and the likes of ManoMano – but even when combined, they don‘t match Amazon’s dominance.

Traditional retailers are being forced to react, with many household names now turning their existing online estates into marketplaces, extending the range and reach of products they can market and stemming the flow to specialist online retailers. These include mainstays of the high street such as B&Q, Marks & Spencer, Boots, Next and Decathlon.

The impact of increased online shopping on UK high streets has been widely covered and after the pandemic, with several retail giants collapsing, retail space vacancies were at an all-time high of circa 14%. There have been limited signs of recovery since the low point in 2021, but huge uncertainty remains due to the economic situation, the cost of living crisis and the relentless march of online commerce.

With the economy in a precarious place and people having less disposable income, FMCG businesses will be looking to focus their marketing budgets on achieving quarterly sales targets. Rebranding and ‘tent pole’ marketing campaigns may be scaled back or delayed with that share of the budget being reallocated towards direct campaigns to push products harder than ever.

This is where the new breed of agencies that can navigate the dark arts of online marketplaces can excel by helping brands access mass markets quickly and easily. The models of these agencies all differ but, in many cases, their fees are linked to performance. Therefore, the brands are in a no-lose situation and, as their agency’s core remuneration focus is on client sales, the relationship is completely aligned.

These expert agencies also offer challenger brands swift, effective and relatively inexpensive access to consumers without the need to court the all-powerful retailers as has traditionally been the case. Coupled with the rise in social media whereby consumers are influenced to buy products based on sustainability, usability and herd recommendation – as opposed to simply trusting a brand name – this represents a huge opportunity for such brands and, likewise, for those specialist agencies that can platform-market them.

Ultimately, online consumers will have a broader choice and faster cross-marketplace comparison capability, further cementing e-commerce as the preferred platform for spending.

There is a space for reinvention

So, is this really the pivot point where traditional retailers turn their backs on bricks and mortar in favor of e-commerce marketplace opportunities? I’m not sure. We are gregarious, social animals that like to visit, congregate and socialize in city and town centers. However, whether the old adage of ‘let’s go to the shops‘ will be the key driver of these visits is questionable.

There will be lots of opportunities for experiential agencies that can rise to the challenge of making often defunct retail spaces, such as closed House of Fraser stores, into exciting destinations that hold a broader appeal than shopping alone. Many of these agencies had a tough time in the pandemic, with the smart ones quickly skilling up and expanding their online capabilities and it’s these that may lead the pack in bridging online and offline commerce.

So, as we move on from yet another very turbulent year, with everything from the war in Europe, an energy crisis, three UK prime ministers, ongoing strikes and rampant inflation, it’s very hard to predict anything with any certainty for 2023. What we can say is that we are likely to see further growth in e-commerce, the agencies that support it and further transformation in our high streets. With change comes opportunity and we can expect to see the agency landscape continue to morph next year.

An unfit environment for sellers

In terms of merger and acquisition (M&A) activity, changing consumer needs will always present opportunities for agencies that specialize in meeting them. And acquirers across the whole spectrum need to offer that expertise to the brands they represent. So, in turn, the M&A march across the marcomms space will continue.

At this time of year, we’re always asked to give our views on likely M&A activity more generally going forward. Putting aside the need for acquirers to continually develop and grow, the obvious cloud on the horizon from a seller’s point of view is a potential rise in capital gains tax (CGT) in the March 2023 budget. If it doesn’t happen then, we think it will if the odds-on change in government occurs in January 2025.

While this won’t affect acquirer appetite, a tax hike will certainly make it less attractive for independent owners to sell. It takes six to nine months to sell a business, sometimes longer, and should CGT remain unchanged in the March budget, then those looking to mitigate that future governmental tax-hike risk shouldn’t leave it much past September 2023 before commencing a process.

Read more