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FOCUS-COVID-19 crisis: a shot in the arm for Russian e-commerce

* Russia’s e-commerce market is growing rapidly

* Delivery time to remote regions has been cut

* Logistics and infrastructure are big challenges

* Russian companies dominate the market

GDANSK/MOSCOW, Nov 19 (Reuters) - The coronavirus crisis has helped fuel a surge in online shopping in Russia that has put even the remote icy expanse of Chukotka on the e-commerce map.

The windswept region in Russia’s far east, where winter temperatures can fall below minus 50 degrees Celsius (-58F), has started to boom for online retailers since the pandemic started keeping consumers at home.

It’s a trend playing out across Russia, spurring explosive growth for online retailers. Traditionally unable to make speedy deliveries in the world’s largest country, where roads become clogged with ice and snow for months, they have invested heavily in logistics centres and delivery points.

With foreign players largely absent, Russian companies are cashing in as online shopping surges.

“It’s very convenient,” said Alina Lunina, an English language teacher from the city of Samara who now buys clothes, books, make-up and sometimes groceries online.

She uses Russian company Wildberries, which she says delivers to collection points in two days even though Samara is more than 860 km (534 miles) from its Moscow headquarters.

“There are many pick-up points in my area. It takes me five minutes to walk,” she told Reuters.

The e-commerce boom is a welcome development for economists who say Russia is too reliant on oil and gas revenues, especially as retail sales, a gauge of consumer demand, plunged as lockdown measures kept people at home at the start of the pandemic - which has killed more than 34,000 people in Russia.

E-commerce accounted for just 1.4% of Russia’s economy in 2019, according to research firm Data Insight, compared with 2.6% in the United States and 5.1% in China.

“The Russian e-commerce market is growing significantly faster than in the United States or in the largest EU countries, thanks to the low penetration base effect,” Data Insight co-founder Boris Ovchinnikov told Reuters.

He put the market value in Russia for the first half of 2020 at 1.16 trillion roubles ($15.2 billion).

Analysts from market research firm Euromonitor expect annual online sales in Russia to grow by more than 40% this year to around 2.5 trillion roubles and by 10-15% a year over the next five years.

FRAGMENTATION

E-commerce penetration in Russia has increased from 7% of total retail sales in 2019 to about 11% in 2020 though that is still less than in the United States, where penetration is about 19%, said Marija Milasevic at Euromonitor.

The Russian market is also very fragmented.

Privately owned Wildberries leads with 15% of the market, according to Data Insight, and Ozon, which has filed for an initial public offering in the United States, has 7%.

Behind them comes AliExpress Russia, a joint venture between Chinese online shopping giant Alibaba and Russian partners. Other rivals include Russian electronics firm M.Video ; Sbermarket, controlled by a joint venture between Russia’s largest bank Sberbank and internet group Mail.Ru; and internet company Yandex.

Amazon has not entered Russia, where the country’s size - it has 11 time zones - and its competitive IT market pose challenges.

“To cover at least two major cities in Russia, the company needs to invest heavily not only in delivery but in warehousing to have enough goods to maintain the current quality level,” said Sergey Belyaev of Sova Capital.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

Wildberries, which said it attracted over 12 million new customers to its website in the first nine months of 2020 has enjoyed spectacular growth.

Orders in April-October rose 490% in Chukotka, a remote region located across the Bering Strait from Alaska where winters bring endless nights and temperatures below minus 50 degrees Celsius (-58 F).

Wildberries said April-October orders also soared by 385% in Ingushetia in the North Caucasus, and by 239% in Buryatia, a region in eastern Siberia.

The retailer, which says it has over 34 million customers, now has 13 warehouses and dozens of sorting and distribution centres across Russia which reduce delivery times in the Far East and Siberia.

BIG CHALLENGES

Logistics and poor infrastructure are big challenges but door-to-door couriers have boomed in big cities, with low labour costs helping companies keep prices down.

Wildberries’ customers can order items to try on in small sites dotted around cities. Ozon operates a network of drop-off boxes for clients to pick up packages.

Ozon said in March it was spending $300 million on logistics improvements and has opened a logistics centre in Rostov-on-Don, close to Ukraine, for same-day delivery.

In April-May, Ozon recorded an 84% increase in new active buyers year-on-year, and regions outside Moscow account for over 55% of its gross merchandise value, company data showed.

As in other countries, online grocery orders have soared during the pandemic and the race is on to cut delivery times even further.

Yandex last year launched a service, Yandex.Lavka, for grocery delivery in 15 minutes. This followed its success with a food delivery service, Yandex.Eda.

Yandex.Lavka has small warehouses across Moscow and uses couriers on bikes, electric bicycles or motorbikes. Its monthly orders have risen to more than 1 million from about 50,000 a year ago, the company said.

Sbermaket said its orders in cities such as St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Nizhny Novgorod were 15-17 times higher in the third quarter than in the first three months of 2020.

Sbermarket expects the e-grocery sector to keep growing fast in Russia in years to come, its chief financial officer Michael Loyko said.

Online grocer Utkonos, which reported a 65% increase in sales year-on-year in the third quarter, also said demand for delivery services was likely to keep growing now that consumers have a taste for the convenience of online shopping. ($1 = 76.3200 roubles)

Additional reporting by Andrey Ostroukh, Olga Popova, Nadezhda Tsydenova and Vladimir Sadykov, Editing by Katya Golubkova and Timothy Heritage

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