Why don’t we know the true extent of Irish online sales?

It’s hard to believe that our retail sales gauge still doesn’t include the bulk of transactions that happen online. But we are not alone. Most countries can only guess how much activity takes place via the Internet.

Data collection agencies like our own Central Statistical Office (CSO) are prohibited from asking companies like Amazon, which reside outside their jurisdiction, for revenue figures. Amazon’s annual revenue for 2021 was just under $470 billion (€416 billion). Therefore, the monthly retail figures only reflect traditional offline, physical transactions and online transactions, in this case, Ireland-based retailers.

The latter, according to the CSO, accounted for 6.5% of retail sales in December. It was 3-4% before Covid. At the height of confinement, in April 2020, it rose to 15%. Excluding car, fuel and bar sales, the share of online retail sales in December 2019 was 6.6%. This figure rose to 22.7% of total sales in April 2020 during the first lockdown.

However, all of e-commerce is still a guessing game.

The increase in An Post parcel deliveries tells us that the region has grown. The increase in online shopping, triggered by Covid restrictions, has boosted An Post parcel deliveries by 100% in 2020 and 300% ahead of Christmas. The state-owned company expects parcel business to grow 15% in 2021 and at the same pace thereafter. It aims to grow its revenue to €1 billion a year over the next five years, largely by harnessing the boom in e-commerce. There may be a way to gauge the size of this sector through balance of payments data, collected as part of the CSO’s national accounts, but no one has yet attempted it. Thus, the true extent of e-commerce in the state remains a matter of conjecture.

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David A. Albanese