Amazon appears 'miles' behind an Alibaba-backed rival in Prime's only Southeast Asian market

  • As Amazon celebrates Prime's first anniversary in Southeast Asia, it still has not expanded the program beyond Singapore.
  • Amazon's regional rivals are growing quickly and investing heavily.
  • Southeast Asia's e-commerce market has potential for huge growth, so competitors' successes do not necessarily equate to losses for Amazon.
An Amazon facility in Singapore
Saheli Roy Choudhury | CNBC
An Amazon facility in Singapore

Amazon brought Prime to Southeast Asia a year ago when it kicked off its membership program in Singapore. Since then, its regional rivals have seen strong growth, and the American juggernaut has failed to take the lead, market observers told CNBC.

That doesn't necessarily mean Amazon is failing in what it set out to do. Rather, the development of Southeast Asian e-commerce is "still in early stages," according to Candice Ong, the chief commercial officer of e-commerce merchant Shopback.

When Amazon first launched in Singapore, Ong said, there was a lot of news and anticipation. “That is expected, given that they (are) a huge player,” said Ong, whose company has been an active participant in the growth of the region’s e-commerce sector by working with large companies such as Lazada and Foodpanda.

Amazon declined to comment for this story.

According to Ong, however, Amazon remains only one of several competitors vying for pole position in the region, with Chinese heavyweights such as Tencent and Alibaba investing in companies such as Sea Group’s Shopee and Lazada, respectively.

"I think it will get harder for Amazon, actually, to compete." -Luc Grimond, partner and managing director at The Boston Consulting Group

The region has significant potential. A report by consultancy Frost & Sullivan in February said Southeast Asia's business-to-consumer e-commerce market surpassed the $6 billion mark in the fourth quarter of 2017, experiencing a quarter-on-quarter growth rate of 28.5 percent. And there's huge unharnessed potential, too: A 2017 report from consulting firm Bain & Co. estimated that online retail in the region makes up only about 3 percent of overall industry sales.

Naveen Mishra, industry principal at Frost & Sullivan, echoed Ong’s viewpoint, telling CNBC that Amazon has yet to catch up with the region's incumbents.

Since announcing its Prime entry into Singapore in 2017, Amazon has not expanded its services to the wider region beyond announcing a partnership with the Vietnam E-commerce Association in March.

“From an external perspective, I’ve been a bit surprised that they haven’t gone after, you know, the wider market,” said Luc Grimond, a partner and managing director at The Boston Consulting Group.

Even in Singapore, Grimond said, the Alibaba-backed Lazada appears to dominate market share. From a traffic perspective, he added, it's "probably miles away."

Lazada, which does not publicly announce sales numbers, did not respond to requests for comment.

Deliveries boom, investment surges

While Amazon has taken its time, some of Southeast Asian rivals have “rapidly” gained market share, Mishra said.

One such example is Sea Group’s Shopee platform. The company said in a financial statement that its e-commerce segment sold goods with a total value of $1.9 billion in the first quarter — a 23 percent increase from the prior quarter.

Still, that strong growth doesn't necessarily mean other companies — like Amazon — will lose out, Mishra said, explaining that the e-commerce market is growing overall.

“Generally speaking, e-commerce delivery traffic has increased across the wider (Southeast Asia) region,” Winston Seow, chief commercial officer at delivery firm Ninja Van, told CNBC.

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“This may or may not be due to the entrance of Amazon Prime, as their services are only available in (Singapore) at the moment,” he added.

In fact, Amazon's initial announcement that it intended to enter the Southeast Asian market likely spurred incumbents into “raising their game," Grimond said.

Among those shopping sites that have found motivation in the American tech giant's arrival is delivery service Honestbee.

“With the entry of Amazon in Singapore, customers have more choices. And its entry has motivated us to deliver better value and experience for our customers,” said Chris Urban, managing director of Honestbee Singapore.

The company has seen its traffic “surge,” Urban said, as a result of investments to improve its operations and customer experience.

“Since 2017, we’ve seen a 300% increase in demand for grocery delivery services,” Urban said in an email. “Our database of customers has also grown 290% in the past year.”

The list of competitors extends beyond start-ups too, with traditional retailers boosting its digital operations. Grimond cited Indonesian conglomerate Lippo, which has made investments of up to $500 million to develop its e-commerce capabilities.

“I think it will get harder for Amazon, actually, to compete,” Grimond said.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Naveen Mishra's name.