Despite All Restrictions, e-Commerce Increased

Despite All Restrictions, e-Commerce Increased

The uptick in e-commerce activity fuelled by COVID-19 pandemic sustained in 2021, with online sales increasing, according to new UNCTAD figures.

The average share of internet users who made purchases online increased from 53 per cent before the pandemic (2019) to 60 per cent following the onset of the pandemic (2020/21), across 60 countries with statistics available, the UNCTAD said.


The UN agency said that the situation prior to the pandemic and the extent of the boost to online shopping experienced vary between countries. It said that several developed countries already had relatively high levels of online shopping (above 50 per cent of internet users) before the pandemic while most developing countries had a lower uptake of consumer e-commerce.

  • In the United Arab Emirates, the share of internet users who shopped online more than doubled, from 27 per cent in 2019 to 63 per cent in 2020.
  • In Bahrain the share tripled, reaching 45 per cent in 2020 in Uzbekistan it rose from four per cent in 2018 to 11 per cent in 2020.
  • Thailand saw a 16-percentage-point increase, which meant that more than half of internet users (56 per cent) shopped online in 2020.
  • Among developed countries, the greatest increases were seen in Greece (up 18 percentage points), Ireland, Hungary and Romania (each 15 percentage points)
  • Of the 66 countries covered, online shopping remains the lowest in El Salvador (1 per cent of internet users), Azerbaijan (5 per cent), Uzbekistan (11 per cent) and Colombia (17 per cent).
  • One reason for such differences is that countries differ greatly in their extent of digitalization and therefore in their ability to turn swiftly to digital technologies to mitigate economic disruption.
  • Least developed countries (LDCs) are especially in need of support to take up e-commerce but are not represented in this analysis due to a lack of data on internet usage.


As per the available statistics for seven countries that together comprise around half of global GDP (including the United States and China), the UNCTAD says that that online retail sales increased substantially in these countries from around two trillion dollars in 2019 to around 2.5 trillion dollars in 2020 and 2.9 trillion dollar in 2021.

China accounts for over half of the online retail sales across these countries and the United States for a further 30%. It said that online retail sales in 2021 in Singapore approached triple the 2018 level. Canada and Australia also experienced especially large increases over the same period. The share of online sales in total retail sales increased from 16 per cent in 2019 to 19 per cent in 2020. This level was sustained into 2021 despite offline sales picking up strongly. Online sales comprise a much greater share of total retail sales in China (around a quarter in 2021) than in the United States (around one eighth). As a result of steep increases following the onset of the pandemic, the United Kingdom joined Korea (Rep.) in having the highest overall online retail share in 2021, at 28 per cent.


The UNCTAD said that 13 top consumer-focused e-commerce businesses increased their revenues sharply during the pandemic. In 2019, these companies made sales worth $2.4 trillion. Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, this rose sharply to $2.9 trillion (not shown), and a further one third increase followed in 2021, taking total sales to $3.9 trillion. Alibaba, Amazon, and Pinduoduo increased their revenues by 70% between 2019 and 2021 and their share of total sales through all these 13 platforms rose from around 75% in 2018 and 2019 to over 80 per cent in 2020 and 2021.

Expedia, Booking Holdings and AirBnB saw gross bookings decline by up to two thirds in 2020 as movement controls reduced demand for travel and accommodation services, though growth returned in 2021 as restrictions were eased.


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