In a highly competitive business landscape, it’s important for eCommerce merchants to identify and capitalize on new growth engines. In the past year, Russia and many of its neighboring countries exhibited the highest eCommerce growth in Europe, and Eastern Europe became the fourth largest eCommerce market in the world. Estonia showed a 35% hike in online sales in 2016, while Ukraine saw an incline of 31%. As the number of internet users continues to increase, countries that were members of the former Soviet Union present an enormous opportunity for online merchants.

Another reason to celebrate the region is the holiday season. Shoppers in these countries are equally enthusiastic about gift giving as in the West. But merchants would be wrong to invest large marketing efforts that aim toward December, given that many countries in this part of the world do not exchange their holiday gifts on December 25th.

So what do eCommerce merchants need to know to make the most of the opportunities available in this market? When catering to foreign consumers, retailers must understand the local context and customs, as well as shopping trends. This blog post will provide some insights into the unique behavior that characterizes online shoppers from this lucrative region.

Novy God: a holiday miracle!

In Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, Father Christmas does not leave gifts for children on Christmas Day. Nor are presents exchanged on 7th January for the Russian Orthodox Christmas. Instead, the biggest gift giving day of the year is Novy God – a secular hybrid of Christmas and New Year – which takes place on January 1st. November promotional sales kick off the holiday season but shopping continues in these countries until the final days of December.

The historical roots of Novy God celebrations are found in the Soviet Union’s 1928 ban on Christmas celebrations. Later on, a holiday with a celebratory tree was restored. Instead of a religious Christmas, a secular and forward looking New Year’s celebration was born.

During the gift giving season, one third of Russian shoppers turn to the internet for gift ideas before making their holiday purchases. But because holiday shopping goes until the end of the year it is important that online merchants accurately prepare for the timing of the holiday period. For example, merchants seeking to sell to this market might consider extending their holiday season advertising campaigns, promotions sales and products until the Russian New Year.

Pay attention to regional and national trends

Understanding the regional patterns at play when entering a new eCommerce market is critical, especially when the countries that make up the region exhibit different shopping, spending and fraud patterns. For example, weaker economies don’t necessarily correspond with lower online buying power. In fact, our data indicates that Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have some of the highest average cart values ($302 and $285 respectively), despite the fact that their average monthly salary is significantly lower than Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (whose average cart values is $193, $134 and $99 respectively). There are many reasons for this, some corresponding to duties and taxes collected locally.

Another issue merchants need to consider when entering the eCommerce market in this region is the industries consumers are most interested in. According to our data, consistently popular industries include fashion, travel and smoking paraphernalia. Perhaps more surprising are the trends we see when examining country-specific industries where consumers are spending big. Our data shows that Ukrainians spend an average of $500 on a smoking paraphenalia cart and the average sporting goods cart is worth $350. Latvians, on the other hand, spend big on fashion, with average shopping carts from online fashion retailers reaching nearly $500. Merchants should take note of such spending patterns when targeting specific countries in the region.  

Fraud is another issue that varies between the countries that make up this region. In Russia and Ukraine, we observe the highest rates of fraud in remittance orders, while auto part orders from Ukraine and orders for mobile phones from Russia were significantly safer. In Belarus, fraud is observed more frequently in travel orders. The take home message is clear: each country differs in terms of the popularity and safety of certain industries. Learning the safe and fraudulent patterns is important for successful expansion into this (or any) new region.

Get to know the consumers (and how they shop)

Similar to the rest of the world, certain email domains are more likely to be used in fraud attempts made from former Soviet countries. But the pattern that emerges here is that local email domains are a safe indicator. For instance, mail.ru and inbox.lv tend to be safer. In contrast, “global” or “generic” email domains like ‘mail.com’ or ‘outlook.com’ are more likely to be associated with fraud.

Our analysis also reveals that purchases made via internet browsers that are commonly associated with risk in the rest of the world, are less reliable risk indicators in orders originating from this region. Browsers that are often treated with suspicion in the west, such as Opera, are not only more commonly used in this region, but are also much safer. The usage rate of Firefox, for example, is almost double the rate we see in the rest of the world. ‘Safe’ browsers like Internet Explorer and Safari, on the other hand, are used at lower rates here.

Another factor for merchants to take note of is that payment methods may differ across countries. In a recent survey, more than 70% of Russian respondents reported that they used a cash on delivery payment option. Nevertheless, in recent years the growth of eCommerce in the region has led to an increase in the number of payment methods available. For instance, credit card based payments are now used for 20% of online orders, while e-wallets comprise 11%. It’s important to know what the popular payment methods are, and how payment is evolving when looking at possible countries for expansion.

Study, plan and capitalize!

Expanding your business into Russia and the neighboring countries offers eCommerce retailers boundless opportunities for growth. These economies are booming, and local consumers are often excited to get products that are either unavailable, or very expensive locally. Understanding local shoppers, and what they lack, is vital when deciding to expand into a new market. It’s also important for merchants to map out and understand regional and country specific patterns in order to make a successful entry into this lucrative market.