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As e-commerce thrives in Asia, so do these companies

Anchanto

The month-long period following Black Friday is easily the busiest time of year for logistics companies as they compete to deliver packages in time for the holiday season.

Now, the prosaic yet crucial industry in Southeast Asia is witnessing a new burst of rivalry amid a thriving e-commerce boom, as reflected in the rise of 'e-fulfillment' firms.

While the traditional logistics industry uses a business-to-business (B2B) model, e-fulfillment adapts logistics to the business-to-consumer (B2C) sphere of online shopping. As more brands sell their products online, they are increasingly outsourcing logistics to these third-party firms, who take care of everything from local customer service to delivery.

Southeast Asia is currently one of the fastest growing regions for e-commerce, with online retail revenues among the six member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) set to spike to $34.5 billion by 2018 from $7 billion in 2013, according to Frost & Sullivan.

But challenges such as the need for cash payments and high volume delivery are restricting growth.

By removing these logistics bottlenecks, e-fulfillment firms hope their services will enable more e-tailers to expand operations in the region. The past four years have spawned numerous firms competing for dominance in the niche market, including Anchanto, aCommerce, and Shipwire.

"Big brands shouldn't go into logistics. Why do firms outsource marketing to advertising companies like WPP? Because it's not their core operation, their focus is on products and brand building," explained Bangkok-based Peter Kopitz, aCommerce's chief operations officer.

Kopitz first noticed the logistics opportunity within the region's e-commerce market three years ago during his previous role as co-founder and managing director for Rocket Internet Thailand.

"Most e-commerce firms tend to focus on front-end operations, like maintaining their website and marketing, but they lag on back-end activities, such as inventory storage, order processing, shipping, and returns. So, customers often complain of delayed orders or the lack of cash on delivery options."

It's a similar story for Singapore-based Anchanto, which claims to be Southeast Asia's first end-to-end fulfillment cloud-based platform.

Back in 2009, Anchanto's co-founder and CEO Vaibhav Dabhade noticed there were no order management systems customized for online shopping so he built one using Amazon Web Services' cloud-computing platform. Once it released in 2013, the software rapidly gained popularity and the firm then expanded its focus to the entire logistics sphere.

Technology is a key feature of e-fulfillment services. In contrast to physical retail stores, e-commerce websites deal with smaller volumes, fast-moving merchandise and customized orders that demand speedier delivery times so they need a separate system for inventory, warehousing, order processing and delivery.

Previously, e-tailers would have to modify existing systems built for bricks-and-mortar retailers, a process known as hacking, to adapt it for e-commerce operations, explained Dabhade.

Unlike Anchanto, aCommerce utilizes a mixture of off-the-shelf software combined with its own propriety cloud technology that it customizes when existing software falls short.

Singpost, one of Southeast Asia's leading players, is also on the cloud and focuses on e-commerce as well but Anchanto and aCommerce don't consider the postal mail company as competition since it retains a big-picture regional approach compared to the localized operations of e-fulfillment. Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings owns 26 percent of Singpost.

While cloud-based platforms are incredibly useful for global logistics industry, with real-time inventory, synchronized processes and pattern recognition, it can be problematic for Southeast Asia.

"In many of Southeast Asian countries, cloud may not be the best solution. Internet networks across the region aren't consistent so in that sense, it would make sense for these operations to be on the ground," said Kopitz.

To get around slow Internet speeds, e-fulfillment firms typically program their software to work offline up to a certain period and once connection resumes, they can start pushing out real-time data again.

While many boast a similar business model, not all e-fulfillment companies are alike. While aCommerce typically rents warehouses, Anchanto employs an Airbnb-esque model.

"Instead of us investing in warehouses throughout Southeast Asia, we teamed up with old school logistical firms. We get their infrastructure and they get our e-fulfillment services in return," Dabhade explained.

At this stage, there are no companies offering to outsource warehousing operations, Kopitz remarked, which could be the next leg in Southeast Asia's logistics wars.