Before the advent of the online retail marketplace as we know it, there were B2B marketplaces that came out of the dotcom bubble such as VerticalNet, CommerceOne and Covisint. They helped businesses with online auctions at the one end and with procurement on the other, which involved complex transactions such as requests for quotations, information and proposals. They have mainly been subsumed into and are used these days as part of complex enterprise resource planning systems in major corporations.
However, the online marketplace model has persisted, driven by consumers seeking the convenience and broad assortment that marketplaces provide. In fact, online marketplaces now represent 57% of global web sales, totaling more than $2 trillion annually. B2Bs are catching onto the marketplace trend as well: Gartner says that “By 2023, at least 70% of the enterprise marketplaces launched will serve B2B transactions”.
The origin of the modern marketplace trend can be traced, in part, back to two companies that did survive the dot-com bubble: Amazon and eBay. Amazon was founded in 2000 originally as an online marketplace for books before expanding into multiple categories and becoming a behemoth that is one of the biggest economic forces in the world. Alexa, itself an Amazon company, ranks it the third-most visited website in the United States after Google and Youtube.
eBay, founded by Pierre Omidyar in 1995, evolved from being an auction site to becoming an online marketplace with its ‘Buy it Now’ feature. eBay has grown to become a multibillion-dollar organization so big that the payment services provider it owned at one time, PayPal, had to be spun off.
eBay is present in over 30 countries but in China, where the consumer-to-consumer (C2C) platform Taobao – founded in 2003 by Alibaba – is the market leader, it couldn’t make a dent. Just like how eBay felt the need to own a payment services provider, Alibaba also owns Alipay, an escrow-based online payment system which is the most-widely used third-party payment solution in China.
In 2010, its service AliExpress connected Chinese manufacturers directly to international visitors, a move that would go on to radically change the offerings in many marketplaces today and give rise to retail fulfillment practices such as drop-shipping, where sellers don’t stock the product but instead buy it from a third party and have it mailed it out the customer. Taobao’s B2C platform Tmall is the third-most visited site globally.
In Japan and Southeast Asia, eBay runs one of the main marketplaces Qoo10, in a joint venture together with another early C2C marketplace platform GMarket, founded in 2000 in Korea. The leader is Japan is Yahoo’s Paypay Mall, which was built on the success of the PayPay payment app and modeled on Alipay and Taobao, followed by Rakuten and then Amazon.
The success of these digital giants has accelerated the adoption of the marketplace model across industries and regions, and marketplaces are being adapted to a variety of uses. We’ve begun to notice a myriad of them that can be labeled under the below categories.
Types of Marketplaces
- Horizontal Marketplaces: where vendors offer a broad range of good and services across multiple categories, for example, Amazon or Idealo (the latter a price comparison site launched in 2000 in Germany that also offers sales of goods).
- Vertical Marketplaces: where vendors offer products and services specific to a defined category or market. Etsy for arts, crafts and vintage items (founded 2005) or Airbnb for rentals (founded 2008) are prime examples.
- Product Marketplaces: offering physical products such as Amazon or Walmart and even the tech marketplace Newegg.
- Virtual Marketplaces: offering virtual products. Gaming marketplace G2G or cryptocurrency exchanges such as Binance and Coinbase fall under this category.
- Service Marketplaces: carpooling marketplaces Didi Chuxing, Uber, Lyft Line, Waze Carpool and Blablacar are some of the most popular. TaskRabbit is a marketplace for handymen while Udemy offers online courses.
- Hybrid Marketplaces: offering both products and services. The subscription box marketplace Cratejoy offers extra services such as subscription-specific logistics, fulfillment management and shipping, tax-smart checkout, and resource guides. Houzz connects people with interior designers but also sells products for the home.
- Niche Marketplaces: covering only a small part of the market.
From eCommerce to Marketplaces
Traditional eCommerce websites have to deal with challenges such as a limited product range, inventory, multiple sales channels and lack of control over the customer journey. This has led to many of them converting into marketplaces, where the owner then can take over the customer journey, allowing for a seamless customer experience.
The model is also more profitable than the conventional first-party eCommerce model. Because marketplace operators do not have to source, purchase, or warehouse inventory, they mitigate the cost & risk of inventory, and can adapt and scale their assortment in response to inevitable fluctuations in consumer demand throughout the year.
Marketplaces also Offer Many Advantages for Sellers
- Access to a Broader Customer Base: A whopping 56% of searches start on Amazon. Amazon Prime has 112 million members in the US alone and over 150 million worldwide.  In December 2019, 214.8 million users visited Amazon’s websites per month, while second-ranked Walmart could boast of 138.3 million unique visitors during the same period.
- Reduced Time to Launch: Marketplaces allow new sellers to generate revenue straight away while building awareness for their brands without worrying about driving traffic to their sites.
- Established Infrastructure and Support: The most popular marketplaces have established programs to help sellers get their products out to customers in terms of marketing, sales and fulfillment. Amazon’s Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) and eBay’s Global Shipping are two examples of them.
The ubiquity of marketplaces has been powered by technology companies such as Mirakl, a best-of-breed marketplace technology solution on the market. Founded in France in 2012, Mirakl was built on the expertise of its co-founders, who launched, scaled, and sold Splitgames, the first omnichannel online marketplace for video games in 2005.
Retailers, manufacturers, and wholesalers have built their online marketplaces on Mirakl’s cloud-based software. Mirakl counts customers in over 40 countries, including Carrefour, H&M, the Kroger Col, Urban Outfitters, and Best Buy Canada.
They have also made a foray into B2B marketplaces for procurement or bulk buying of parts such as Astore by Accor Hotels, as well as clients such as Airbus Helicopters and Toyota Material Handling. Mirakl even runs a “marketplace of marketplaces” called Mirakl Connect, where sellers, marketplace operators, and technology partners connect to identify new opportunities in the marketplace ecosystem.
Marketplaces have changed the way we discover products and services. Indeed, they may have changed the way we live by bringing a wide range of these directly to our devices and reducing inefficiencies by lowering the cost of acquiring information about the sellers’ products.
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