Unilever’s online sales are growing at twice the rate of the global ecommerce market

Unilever’s online sales are outpacing the global ecommerce market, propelled by growth from the UK, Ireland and France.

The world’s second biggest ad spender said ecommerce sales across its business were growing at 40 per cent compared to 20 per cent for the global market. While it’s still early days, early gambles have the company on track to see its volume ecommerce sales account for around 6 per cent of its retail sales this year.

A large chunk of its ecommerce spurt is coming from the UK and Ireland, which are growing in the “mid-teens”, according to the company, with ecommerce now accounting for 7 per cent of the business in the former. Its third biggest market is France where the business is seeing gains from alternative and “highly pop-up” models.

The boost helped lift Unilever’s underlying revenue by 5.7 per cent in the third quarter – its strongest quarterly jump in almost three years and more than analysts’ predictions. Chief executive Paul Polman rued the impact of “fragile” demand on its inability to grow faster in the period but backed innovations like Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Core ice cream and Marc de Champagne-flavoured ice-cream alongside its burgeoning direct-to-consumer business to bring in new business.

It goes some way to justifying the investment Unilever has already pumped into ecommerce, that’s already seen it explore sharper personalisation as well as direct-to-consumer sites. All these efforts are grouped in one of five difference ecommerce models, with markets like the UK and China having dedicated teams to capitalise on the early momentum there.

Unilever is chasing 40 per cent growth in online sales this year as it quickens efforts to build direct relationships with shoppers that have traditionally been facilitated by retailers. Companies worldwide are struggling to adapt to the disruption caused online sellers, with many reluctant to rock the boat (too much) when it comes to relationships with supermarkets. Diageo,Mondelez and Heineken are among a growing number of global players trying to overhaul the way they sell to consumers in an attempt to unearth new growth opportunities amid slowing sales worldwide.

At the Dmexco conference earlier this year WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell highlighted the transition, pointing out the changing dynamic between manufacturers like Unilever and retailers. “We see a great shift in the balance of power between retailer and manufacturers,” he added.

“Over the last 20 years the big retailers – Tesco, Carrefour, Walmart – had the power. Today that’s changing. The direct relationship that you can establish online with the consumer is critically important and manufacturers have the ability now to correspond and relate to the consumer. The threat is from Amazon, Alibaba and Ebay in terms of them becoming the new Tesco, Carrefour and Walmart – they could establish that direct relationship and destabilise the manufacturers. Manufacturing plus ecommerce plus retailing is important."

It’s a thought not lost GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). The company’s global head of digital media Khurram Hamid revealed at the Ad: Tech London conference this week that exploring programmatic ecommerce was his priority for 2016. “I’m focused on how our digital investments can drive digital online working with ecommerce media providers; that’s programmatic ecommerce,” he continued.

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