Market Futures

11 minute read
A new generation of digital marketplaces wants to reinvent how we buy. Are you ready?


Crypto Camels Club is a new collection of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) available on the OpenSea exchange. This limited edition of 10,000 digital artworks is designed programmatically—so each is unique—and they can be bought with Ether, a cryptocurrency that runs on the Ethereum blockchain.

Should you wish to purchase a real, non-crypto camel, however, your best bet is to visit Pushkar. Each year, this small desert town in India’s North-West is turned into one of the world’s largest livestock markets. Over the course of five days in the Hindu month of Kartik—which coincides with October and November—the place is full of pilgrims and typically sees more than 30,000 camels traded, during a tradition that has been going on for centuries.

Whether you are buying a digital asset online, or bartering for a dromedary in person, the fundamentals of how a marketplace operates have remained the same since the dawn of civilization. They bring together a number of different buyers and sellers, providing choice and liquidity within an agreed upon framework.

What has continued to evolve is the technology underpinning these trading venues, partly because they tend to act as catalysts for innovation. The first examples of writing were used to record tallies of agricultural goods, while mathematics was invented to help the trading process.

In the past two and a half decades the major shift has been from physical to online marketplaces. But right now, these digital ecosystems are themselves going through a rapid period of change. Here are four trends you need to know...


Today, the total value of online marketplaces is over $2.2 trillion. By 2025, online marketplaces will account for 40 to 50 percent of online spending, with growth in the double digits. In short, they could become the main way people purchase goods and services online. But how did we get here?

Retail was one of the first sectors to embrace the transformative potential of the internet—indeed, the first generation of online platforms, such as Amazon and eBay, helped to pioneer the third-party marketplace concept. As digital technology developed, the nature of these marketplaces diversified, with industry-specific options emerging—for automobiles, say, or room rentals—and, in Asia, the rise of super-apps.

These vast, mobile-based marketplaces sell a range of products and services from different vendors through a single user-interface. Singapore-based Grab, for example, started with taxis, but has now expanded to offer food and grocery deliveries, as well as financial services such as insurance and payments. Like most super-apps, Grab offers a single digital wallet, allowing customers to easily transact across all different types of services. They can then be offered discounts, loyalty points and targeted product offers, based on their user data and preferences. This keeps them hooked in the ecosystem and starts the cycle again.

Super-apps create an incredibly “sticky” experience, and this is why an estimated one in three of the world’s population is a user. They remain a hot topic of conversation, as companies in the West would like to emulate the success this model has enjoyed in the East. Take PayPal, for example, which is branching out from payments to bill settlement, crypto transactions and shopping. As other tech companies make forays into the do-it-all app space, analysts are predicting that, in the near future, we’ll see them battle to be the go-to platform for consumers. And no wonder: If a tech company can “own” such a large chunk of a user’s online activity, the business opportunity is vast. The question, of course, is will users actually want it?


One emerging marketplace model that already has plenty of proof points, however, is ‘brand-built marketplaces’. As businesses expand their digital capabilities, they have realized that they no longer need to passively use another company’s platform—they can simply build their own. Take US retailer Macy’s, which has recently launched its own “curated digital marketplace” connecting consumers with products from hundreds of third-party brands.

“We can accelerate our digital experience by offering more purchase points, more brands, more categories. It’s really about how we can show up best for our customers,” says Josh Janos, Vice President of Marketplace at Macy’s Inc. “If they are interested in more sustainable products, we can add brands that specialize in that; if there is ongoing demand for outdoor gear, we extend the season and can meet that.”

But for many consumer goods companies experimenting with this model, the play is not about selling to consumers at all. Instead, they’re targeting their base of small retailers. As Manish Jain, Global Head of Consumer Goods and Retail Industries at J.P. Morgan Payments, explains; “It’s all about digitization of B2B. You have corner stores, small retailers, bodegas, who are selling toothpaste, soap, cereals, all those kinds of things. They can now replenish their inventory much more efficiently via online marketplaces.”


AB InBev, the world’s leading brewer, is connected to millions of retailers around the world. In 2020, the company launched BEES, its proprietary B2B e-commerce platform designed to improve the livelihoods of small-and-medium sized retailers and accelerate the performance of suppliers on the platform. BEES brings retailers from transacting with pen and paper and cash into the digital age; by closing this digital inclusion gap, BEES has enabled AB InBev to better serve business owners, accelerate its business and create new revenue streams.

Now live in 20 markets and 3.1 million monthly active users, BEES transformed a limited, analog sales model into a digital experience that puts the needs of retailers first. “Through BEES we’ve put the catalog in the hand of the retailer so they instantly have the ability to see a full portfolio of products that they can purchase. They have transparency over all the pricing and promotions that they didn’t have before. Importantly they can order at any time, when it’s convenient for them, not necessarily only when the sales rep shows up.” says Nick Caton, Chief B2B Officer at AB InBev.

The elevated user experience ignited demand to access a greater variety of products, spurring BEES’ transformation into a true marketplace. The platform currently offers thousands of third-party products across multiple categories from more than 200 partner companies. The marketplace model creates a win-win situation for AB InBev. BEES provides a better experience for retailers, improving brand perception and loyalty, while generating close to one billion USD in net revenue, all incremental to AB InBev’s business.

Business-to-business marketplaces also enable innovation in financial solutions and services. Consumer goods companies typically extend credit to their retail partners, but it can take weeks or months to approve these loans. With BEES, AB InBev can take a different approach and reduce wait times from weeks to hours. “Because we have a greater connection with our retailers on the platform, we can now apply machine learning and other algorithms to better assess risk which enables us to grant credit more widely and with lower risk, helping solve a big bottleneck for growth of their business,” says Nick.

What’s more, a digital platform makes it easy for consumer goods companies to move away from the typical invoice model, replacing it with more dynamic options. Shops can opt for split payments, say, or receive automated discounts for early settlements. In emerging markets, simply having a digital payments option in the first place can be transformative. Many small businesses in those markets still rely on cash for B2B transactions, and these platforms can incorporate alternative payment methods that are suited to their situation. Consider PIX, for example, which was developed by the Brazilian Central Bank. This instant payment service allows users who don’t have a regular bank account to scan a QR code and then pay via a digital wallet. Reducing the need for physical cash handling can be a major benefit for small stores, as it may reduce risks, such as the threat of robbery.

It is arguably what customers can learn from their own data that’s the most important benefit of a brand-built marketplace. A physical shop may have 3,000 products to manage. The marketplace owner can analyze orders across the platform and provide that shop with insights into which products are selling well for other, similar types of outlets. The data also makes it possible for the marketplace to predict when an item might run out and encourage stores to re-order ahead of time. This type of business intelligence can be invaluable for small retailers and helps lock them into the network.

BEES’ data stack warehouses billions of monthly data points to enable personalized shopping recommendations and event-based messaging. “We provide personalized insights to our retailers to educate them on how they can better manage and grow their business,” says Caton. “It’s a win-win because our business thrives when their business thrives.”

Social media platforms are increasingly being used as the primary search engine


Finding value in overlooked places is what drove the first generation of re-commerce websites—eBay pioneered the model of selling spare or second-hand items online in the 1990s. But pre-used goods are becoming a major area of growth again, and often for high-value products such as consumer electronics and branded clothing. Partly, this is due to the global economic headwinds, which are driving cash-strapped consumers to look for bargains. But it is also due to the growing focus on sustainability and the circular economy.

According to the Business Sustainability Index, 75 percent of US consumers are concerned about the environmental impact of the products they buy. Re-commerce marketplaces are now growing twenty times quicker than the overall retail sector. Take Vinted, a platform for buying, selling and swapping second-hand clothing— it has 45 million users worldwide. A variety of re-commerce models have emerged. There are marketplaces which will guarantee authenticity; there are category-specific, curated auctions; there are even companies that offer fractional ownership of high-value assets. Rally Rd, for example, will take an item such as a classic car, securitize the asset, split it into equity shares, and then make these shares available to buy and trade. Instead of purchasing shares in a new tech company, you can buy shares in a 1980s Ferrari.

These re-commerce companies are also leveraging many of the strategies used in more established marketplaces, while adding their own ideas. As Helena Forest, Head of Product EMEA Marketplace Solutions at J.P. Morgan, puts it: “You need to have that killer feature at the core that brings the users back on a daily basis, preferably multiple times per day.”

To encourage repeat use, re-commerce sites might use personalized alerts, telling customers when a new piece has become available. Or, in areas such as collectibles, it could be editorialized product lists. StockX, an exchange for vintage sneakers and collectibles, takes a different approach still: it offers the same types of sophisticated tools you might expect in a financial market, such as historical graphs and real-time price updates based on supply and demand.

On the payments side, there is also room to innovate. Re-commerce customers are often budget sensitive, so offering ‘buy now, pay later’ could have a major impact. Or for expensive items, marketplaces could facilitate a leasing model. Imagine a future check-out scenario that allows a customer to choose between purchase, split payments, rent or trade-in.

“What successful marketplaces have achieved is that they have seamlessly embedded the financial product into the transaction and made those services available both to the buyers and the sellers at the point of use,” says Forest. “So, it’s not some type of separate product or service that is being offered, it just appears when you need it.”

One example of seamless integration of product and payment is ZELF, a fintech that offers one account to handle fiat and crypto assets. It operates over established messaging platforms and integrates with a number of existing re-selling marketplaces, such as for NFTs. When you want to trade a digital good, you send an instant message and it’s done. An otherwise technical, convoluted transaction is suddenly user-friendly.



Adding payments capabilities has long been the goal of many social media networks. Facebook Pay (now Meta Pay) was launched in 2019. It allows users to pay for virtual or physical goods and make peer-to-peer payments. Most social media platforms are working on similar initiatives, and one of the major drivers is the promise of social commerce.

In many ways, social media platforms already perform one half of the market dynamic. They gather huge numbers of people in the same place. But monetizing the user-base by selling advertising is increasingly being supplemented by direct forms of commerce. This might involve making images clickable—if the viewer sees a jacket in their feed, they can simply click it to get a link to where they can buy it. Video, however—which is already a major pathway for social commerce in Asia—is seen as a growth area globally. Like an updated version of The Shopping Channel, this involves celebrities, influencers and other salespeople using live videos to promote goods and services. They will then tag the product or add a link that allows a direct purchase.

Social commerce is forecast to double in the next three years in the US, to reach $100bn in gross merchandise value. Among younger generations, social media platforms are increasingly being used as the primary search engine. If they want to find a new lunch spot or a hot new fashion item, they are just as likely to use Instagram or TikTok to get recommendations.

As social commerce continues to evolve, companies in turn will need to develop new payments capabilities. For example, the ability to tap a screen during a video and buy the product, but without disrupting the live feed. The whole process can be further integrated with smartphone technology for added convenience. Imagine someone is interested in purchasing makeup: “Devices have a camera that can measure the tone of the skin,” says J. P. Morgan’s Manish Jain. “They can help select what color of that makeup you need, and then you can just complete the sale.”

In coming years, online marketplaces will evolve further. Whether it is real-time exchanges for almost any asset, or vast markets for digital goods set in immersive 3D virtual worlds, the one thing all of these venues will need is fast, secure, and easy ways to complete transactions. As Jain says, “If I’m talking about building a whole digital experience on how to shop, I have to build a digital experience on how to pay.”