/As traditional retail markets flail, the digital economy shrugs off global instability

As traditional retail markets flail, the digital economy shrugs off global instability

Part of an ongoing series that looks at changes one year after the global trade wars ignited.

Investors may be turning to gold and silver as a safe haven amidst international trade woes, but the digital economy remains unburdened by such fears of global disarray.

Canada’s digital economy between 2010 and 2017 grew faster than the rest of the economy, with a nominal GDP growth of 40.2 per cent compared to 28 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

Although the digital economy is not an industry as classified by Statistics Canada, a report in May showed it made up 5.5 per cent, or $109.7 billion, of the national GDP, more than mining, oil and gas extraction (4.8 per cent), transportation and warehousing (4.6 per cent) and utilities (4.2 per cent).

Technology has relentlessly encroached on every aspect of our lives and the digital economy, whether that means e-commerce or the hardware or software driving it, is proving to be resilient as traditional retail markets flail in the face of international uncertainty.

Many companies, such as Canadian Caterpillar dealer Finning International Inc., have been supplying equipment for data centres in places such as Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam and Paris, as well as Ireland, to mitigate Brexit blowback.

GIC Private Ltd., Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, has also been investing in data centres, and on Aug. 15 it partnered with GDS Holdings Ltd., China’s largest data centre landlord, to fund an expansion in Jiangsu Province.

But the digital drive is reaping rewards in the consumer space as well.

The portion of Canadians buying online increased to 61 per cent in 2019 from 43 per cent in 2013, according to a recent report by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC).

One beneficiary of all that spending is Montreal-headquartered Lightspeed, the point-of-sale and e-commerce provider, which recently posted first-quarter revenue of $24.1 million, a 38 per cent increase over the same period last year. This growth comes after the company quickly accelerated to unicorn status and became Canada’s second-biggest IPO this year as well as the biggest offering by a Canadian tech firm in almost nine years

Crucially, the number of its customer locations grew 20 per cent to 51,000, a benefit of the omnipresent cloud.

Lightspeed CEO Dax Dasilva in 2014.

Christinne Muschi for National Post files

“North America is a huge area of growth for us, but we’re a very international company,” said Dax Dasilva, Lightspeed’s chief executive. “The U.S. is about 50 per cent of our customers, Canada is very strong at 15 per cent and Europe and the rest of world is very strong at more than a third.”

BDC’s report also said global retail e-commerce sales totalled US$2.8 trillion in 2018 and are expected to grow to US$4.9 trillion by 2021.

Nevertheless, Dasilva stresses an omni-channel approach for Lightspeed’s small and medium-sized businesses.

“Retail isn’t dead, but boring retail is dead,” he said. “There’s been a lot of pure online that hasn’t been able to find a sustainable model. Everybody that’s been a success online has also done physical, whether that’s pop-up or permanent stores.”

Retail isn’t dead, but boring retail is dead

Dax Dasilva, Lightspeed CEO

Another Canadian player in the digital dominion is Shopify Inc., which posted $1.1 billion in revenues last year, a 59 per cent increase from 2017.

Chief executive Tobi Lütke‘s net worth has more than doubled to $3.2 billion in the past six months, while Shopify’s stock price has skyrocketed 106 per cent since February.

“With Shopify getting bigger and bigger, it’s getting more on the radar of larger, more global-focused investors,” said Suthan Sukumar, an analyst at Eight Capital. “That is drawing more eyeballs to the Canadian market.”

In 2017, e-commerce was responsible for 18.6 per cent of the jobs in Canada’s digital economy, behind only support services and more than double that of the hardware sector.

Shopify founder and CEO Tobias Lutke.

Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg files

Dasilva said the e-commerce world is the path away from international trade losses.

“We have an office in the U.K., even despite everything that’s going on in the U.K., we see independent businesses continuing to grow and open,” he said. “(Digital) is better for the environment, it’s better to have products locally sourced, have money go back into the community.”

Clearly, a Canadian subsidiary of the French-Italian EssilorLuxottica, is a poster child for Dasilva’s belief in maintaining a bricks-and-mortar presence.

The nearly 20-year-old eyewear retailer is headquartered in Vancouver, where it has two stores. It also has a store in Toronto and international distribution centres in Australia and New Zealand. The company predicts $160 to $170 million in sales this year, with plans to surpass $200 million in 2020.

“It’s a digital and physical era, because consumers will not be doing everything online, they still need some sort of physical touch-point,” said Arnaud Bussieres, Clearly’s chief executive.

In an effort to provide that physical touch-point, Clearly recently developed augmented reality technology that lets customers virtually try new glasses.

Bussieres is skeptical that being in the digital economy allows a company to avoid international trade woes. Clearly recently packed up production of its eyeglass frames in China and moved it to India, due to part to the “barriers between U.S. and China.” The shift took the company four months, Bussieres said.

Clearly recently developed augmented reality technology that lets customers virtually try new glasses.

Ed Kaiser/Edmonton Journal files

Clearly is also leaving the U.S. market in the next year, due to the relatively small scale of its operations when compared the wider retail industry down south.

“To avoid internal competition and maximize marketing efficiencies, Clearly will focus on leading in Canada, Australia and New Zealand where the market is expected to triple in the next five years,” he said.

Clearly takes customer feedback and works with their software engineers to implement solutions, which is how the company came up with its augmented reality technology. Bussieres extols the value of listening to feedback, citing Amazon.Com Inc.’s customer obsession as the way to go.

“Every employee at Clearly, we force people to listen one hour per week or as much as possible to call centres,” he said. “We’ll go and sit next to our vision ambassadors and listen to customers calling in, to see what they have to say.”

The digital economy has also proven itself more than capable of subverting trade models, such as Ontario’s regulations on interprovincial business.

This April, Clearly’s parent company, Essilor Canada Group, won a legal battle against the colleges of licensed Ontario optometrists and opticians, who said the eyewear company was selling prescription eyewear online and shipping them from its operations in Vancouver. The colleges argued that only they are allowed to prescribe eyewear, yet they did not establish harm.

The Ontario Court of Appeals found that barring online sales would be tantamount to using the Ontario’s Regulated Health Professions Act to give the colleges a monopoly, something the regulations currently do not allow. According to court filings, the Canadian prescription eyewear market is estimated to be worth more than $4.5 billion a year. Those same filings also made note of the trend towards online sales.

“The explosion in the volume and variety of online consumer transactions over the past decade has included the emergence of an online market for the purchase and sale of prescription eye glasses and contact lenses,” the court said. “In some jurisdictions, friction has emerged between the online vendors of such products and the professional health-care bodies that historically have regulated the sale.”

With more than one million unique online visitors a month, most of Clearly’s customers begin their purchase journey online, a trend that should only grow in tune with the digital economy as customers seek convenience.

“We’re looking at a three-to-five-year plan where Clearly becomes a half-billion business just by building the right ecosystem,” Bussieres said.

Financial Post

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