Amazon’s assault on the retail industry has brought misery to traditional retailers without a strong web presence.
Less well noticed is the patchwork of European companies that are turning the e-commerce revolution to their advantage, supplying online giants with everything from forklift trucks and storage space to cardboard boxes and automated warehouses.
Mainly bricks-and-mortar retailers such as Debenhams, H&M, and Marks & Spencer have faced a torrid few years as stretched consumers increasingly look online for bargains.
Online retail sales are growing at double-digit percentage rates in every western European country, according to consultancy the Centre for Retail Research.
In Britain, a fifth of transactions are now conducted online, a five-fold increase over the last decade.
The world’s dominant online retailer Amazon, whose shares have soared 73 percent in the last year, is outside the remit of most European investors because it is U.S. listed, so they have had to look for other ways of buying into the trend.
One is investing in companies that have benefited from the rise of e-commerce.
On February 16, warehouse owner Segro’s shares hit a decade-high after it said space-hungry clients, many in online retail and logistics, continued to buy up storage.
“There is a bull market in impatience,” said Gary Paulin, head of global equities at broker Northern Trust. “Consumers want things sooner, faster, now.”
He advises clients to buy shares in Kion, a German forklift truck-maker that is automating warehouses for online retailers, speeding up deliveries in the process.
He also flagged a turnaround at online supermarket Ocado. The company has long been targeted by short-sellers betting its share price will fall, but recently it has signed tie-ups with food retailers Casino and Sobeys, and its shares have more-than-doubled since November.
Martin Todd, a fund manager at Hermes Investment Management, owns shares in Kion as well as DS Smith, a cardboard-box maker which supplies Amazon as well as a number of other online retailers.
DS Smith is developing technology to custom-make boxes for Amazon that will help reduce large gaps in packages that increase freight costs.
“You might think it is a pretty unsexy business … [but] it is getting more high tech in what is traditionally a very low tech industry,” Todd said.
The company recently entered Britain’s blue-chip FTSE 100 index for the first time.
Buying some stocks exposed to online retail does not come cheap. Ocado shares are currently trading at more than 800 times forecast earnings, according to Eikon data.
John Bennett, head of European equities at Janus Henderson Investors, said while traditional retailers were “absolutely dying,” stocks such as Kion were too expensive for him to own.
“It became a very popular name, and I tend to shy away [from widely-owned companies],” he said. “I am far too curmudgeonly on the multiples you pay.”
Reporting by Alasdair Pal.