Italy’s commercial landscape is constantly changing under the influence of dynamics and trends that have a significant impact on the way businesses operate and consumers shop. In particular, commerce is increasingly acquiring a “multi-channel” nature, in which online and offline channels play a complementary role in the consumption habits of Italians.

The multi-channel phenomenon also emerged in a study conducted by the De Gasperi Foundation, with Amazon’s support, titled “The evolution of e-commerce: between false myths and evidence”, an analysis that has also provided clarity on some important aspects related to e-commerce.

The study emphasises that employment dynamics do not establish a causal link between the spread of e-commerce and the loss of jobs in traditional business activities, which have indeed grown until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, recording a positive trend. The analyses created by ISTAT (the Italian National Institute of Statistics) show that in the last ten years and until the outbreak of the pandemic, the commercial sector experienced a period of growth, essentially in line with the diffusion of e-commerce, despite the disappearance of some small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

However, the study highlights that the decline in the number of small business activities is accompanied by a slight increase in the total sales area, showing consolidation towards fewer larger businesses. It also shows that employment in SMEs follows local rather than national dynamics. It was noted that the 1% population increase in the reference territory reverberates in a 1.2% increase in employment in the commercial sector.

On the other hand, the penetration of e-commerce stands at around 12% in Italy, but still represents a small portion of traditional commerce (shopping centres and large-scale organised retail facilities), which continues to account for about 90% of purchases in the sector. And in a context where these large players continue to play an important complementary role in the sector, the multi-channel strategy enables the development of competitive dynamics, creating new opportunities for businesses and consumers.

The adoption of e-commerce as an additional sales channel has made it possible to optimise distribution processes, reducing the number of customers in circulation, empty travel, and environmental impact, and therefore improving the sustainability of the commercial sector. This aspect was also confirmed by a previous study carried out by Oliver Wyman, according to which the fastest delivery options are those with less CO2 consumption and where e-commerce saves four to nine times the traffic generated by shopping in stores.

The research, conducted by IPSOS as part of the study carried out by the De Gasperi Foundation, then asked Italians to identify their reasons for using e-commerce sites. While the research reveals that the wide selection and the availability of home delivery services are the driving factors in consumers’ choice to purchase online, “traditional” stores are still the reference channel for a wide range of products, including, for example, artisanal products, for which the importance of the sensory aspect of purchasing continues to be important.

In the analysis carried out by the De Gasperi Foundation, it emerged that e-commerce is also an opportunity for local stores. For 71% of Italian consumers, local stores that took on the challenge of e-commerce have improved the quality and quantity of the services offered to their customers, thanks to the diffusion of online stores. In addition, 60% of Italian customers appreciate being able to use their trusted stores as a delivery point.

The study also sparked the interest of some institutional representatives and trade associations that wanted to share their thoughts on what emerged from it. In a message during the presentation of the study, Senator Claudio Durigon, undersecretary at the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Policies, stressed the importance of dispelling stereotypes surrounding e-commerce, recognising how it can represent a springboard for many Italian companies, especially smaller ones.

Confesercenti (Italian association representing SMEs) commented that the report confirms the results of a study carried out in May 2023, according to which physical stores continue to be the preferred purchasing channel for consumers. This is also a consequence of the particular role that local businesses have in Italy and that distinguishes them from those in other countries. The contraction of jobs and the displacement of people and workers from small municipalities to large cities, call for a serious reflection on how to counter commercial desertification. And in this sense, it is essential to strengthen the skills and technology of commercial activities, and in particular the integration between digital and traditional tools.

Confapi (Italian Confederation of SMEs) is of the same opinion – that online sales represent an opportunity for growth for SMEs operating in the sector. A path of digital transformation is needed, in which trade associations must play a leading role, actively supporting their members.

The tools that technology makes available to merchants today enable touchpoints to retain customers and offer them an increasingly personalised and high-quality service. All actors – public and private – must join forces to meet the challenges that lie ahead, supporting the development and helping to maximise the success of SMEs.