Italy’s fast-growing e-commerce sector is unusual in a country long known for its weak growth. Online giants such as Amazon, eBay, Zalando and Alibaba are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the development of local operations, and Yoox is leading the charge of Italian players. They are scrambling to increase their share of a market that still has room for growth: only 29% of Italians made online purchases in 2016, a much lower proportion than in the UK (83%), Germany (74%) and France (66%), according to figures from Eurostat.
“I believe that e-commerce in Italy is still in its growth stage and far from maturity, hence the opportunities for Italian and foreign companies are significant,” says Claudio Bonci, business development manager of Italian online wine retailer Tannico.
In 2016, eBay, the largest e-commerce player in Italy, acquired a 10% stake in Italian 4Gifters, a luxury and fashion e-commerce start-up, and Amazon announced a series of investments worth €500m over the coming years. The company is building data and distribution centres to cope with rapidly growing demand. Since it entered the country in 2010, Amazon has invested more than €450m and employs more than 2000 people in Italy. Amazon has a 14% share of the Italian internet retailing sector, second to eBay with 24%, according to analyst Euromonitor International.
“Italy is being invaded by foreign players,” says Davide Casaleggio, head of Italian consulting firm Casaleggio Associati.
Foreign companies possess both the technology and investment capabilities to rapidly achieve economies of scale, outclassing their Italian competitors. In 2016, German online fashion giant Zalando chose Italy for its first satellite warehouse, creating more than 350 jobs. Chinese online platform Alibaba and the Italian government signed an agreement for the promotion and protection of ‘Made in Italy’ agricultural products. Mei.com, China’s popular sales platform for luxury and fashion products in which Alibaba has a stake, has recently located its European headquarters in Milan.
One Italian player to have succeeded is Yoox. The country's leading online luxury fashion retailer merged with UK competitor Net-a-Porter in 2015 to become the world leader in its field. Yoox Net-a-Porter has more than 4000 employees and eight offices around the world.
Casaleggio Associati estimates total revenues for the Italian e-commerce sector of more than €34bn in 2016, a 25% average increase since the financial crisis of 2008. However, figures may vary depending on the range of industries and services taken into account, and Netcomm, the Italian e-commerce consortium, puts total revenues at €20bn.
Beyond statistics, the Italian government has acknowledged the importance of e-commerce, innovative companies and a technology ecosystem. In 2014, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Ministry of Economic Development and various industry associations partnered with Google to launch the ‘Made in Italy: Eccellenze in Digitale’ project, aimed at increasing the online presence of small-scale producers in Italy. The recent national plan, ‘Industria 4.0’, allocates €10bn of public funds to digital manufacturing innovation within the next four years.
“E-commerce is not only strategic, but also indispensable,” says Michele Scannavini, president of the Italian Trade Agency, a government organisation tasked with promoting the globalisation of Italian companies, which this year has launched a set of training courses on e-commerce and digital communication for export-led SMEs.
‘Made in Italy’ remains a globally recognised brand, but Italy as a whole has struggled to attract investment because of its stagnant economic growth, political instability and bureaucratic hurdles. Although Italian consumers have a long way to go before closing the gap with their European peers as regards online shopping, e-commerce is finally acting as one of the catalysts for investment the country has been seeking for years.