Modern trade in Latin America stagnates for consumer product companies

25 July 2018

For the better half of a decade, modern trade penetration in Latin America has been situated between 48-50%, shattering expectations of increasing consumerisation of the region. 

Throughout the past twenty years, Latin America has seen a gradual rise in the penetration of consumer goods and modern trade. Barely shifting since 2011 however, consumer product companies have failed to break through traditional trade barriers and gain market dominance.  

Envisioning a marketplace which would resemble the maturity of Europe or the United States, MNEs and consumer companies entered Latin America enthusiastically. Attempting to woo consumers with a larger range and lower prices, these companies failed to predict the Latin economic downturn which has put a pause on purchasing power.

A recent report by EY Parthenon exemplifies the theory at the beginning of the century versus the reality today. “In this intended marketplace, an increasingly affluent and growing middle class would have access to the financial services needed to afford the higher cart values that result from less frequent shopping trips.”

“In reality, consumer products companies that wagered on high growth in modern trade have struggled with ill-fitting routes to market in a challenging economic environment. In the fallout of the global financial crisis, mom-and-pop stores proliferated because they were better suited to address the needs of economically stressed local populations.”

Modern trade vs traditional trade in Latin America according to EY Parthenon

This misjudgement is an important factor in understanding why companies entering Latin America have struggled. However, it is not the only factor. Cash wages – representing a still largely unbanked population in some areas – have taken their toll on consumer purchasing power. 

There are approximately 400 million citizens who are locked out of the traditional banking system across Latin America. This demographic is neither rich nor poor, rural nor urban, but can be defined by their inability to access traditional banking methods.

The report suggests that there is a correlation between these factors and accessing modern consumer products. Wages have not grown, creating a disequilibrium between formal, banked, modern consumers and informal, unbanked, traditional consumers. “Many consumers, still paid in daily cash wages, were unable to access the financial services needed to enable consolidated shopping trips with higher cart values in modern stores.”

Modern trade and traditional trade split in terms of food and beverage in Latin America according to EY Parthenon

The last issue which EY Parthenon highlights is that many modern stores were not large enough to be sustainably profitable. This drove up prices across the board with brands attempting to reach the ‘economics of scale’. “The fragmented logistics networks required to serve this unanticipated volume of modern stores demanded the exact type of distribution and logistics investment consumer product companies had hoped to avoid.” 

These three factors combined create a divergence between what companies expected and the reality which occurred. As a result, international brands which once thought they could leapfrog into the Latin markets creating their own valuable trade routes and distribution networks, today understand that it is no longer a viable strategy. 

Instead of trying to create a new shopping experience – i.e. one-stop shopping malls, mega-retail chains, fast-fashion, etc. – or trying to buy/create a distribution network, it is prudent to engage a third-party provider who will navigate the challenges endemic to each Latin America country.

“This type of arrangement empowers companies to shift their focus to more value-adding activities such as account development, sales and merchandising. In addition, consumer products companies with large-owned distribution networks are increasingly open to distribution partnerships with other companies that effectively subsidize the fixed cost base that these networks demand,” states the report.

“Despite modern trade’s formidable presence in Latin America, traditional trade has continued to endure as a reliable cornerstone of the consumer products market, with ample opportunity across categories and countries,” the report concludes. 


Digitization could add $240 billion to Mexico’s GDP by 2025

22 January 2019

New in-depth analysis by McKinsey & Company ranks Mexico 55th in digital maturity out of 151 countries. When compared to countries with similar economic output, Mexico is in good shape, but the country has “yet to achieve the kind of world-class digital transformation that fuels productivity and economic growth.”

Countries that have adequately transformed, such as Estonia and Malaysia, have incomes close to Mexico, but punch “above their weight” when it comes to digital maturity. Mexico is about halfway there. Taking steps to improve its global digital position, however, could increase the country’s GDP by  7-15% (approximately $155-240 billion) by 2025. Such an increase would be powered by increased productivity and employment in existing industries, new digital businesses, a broadened expanded information-and-communication-technology (ICT) sector, as well as the successful labor force transition into the digital world.

Mexico is the second-largest economy in Latin America, meaning it is in the unique position to set the regional standard for a “digitally enabled” government.

For their analysis, McKinsey & Company researchers Alberto Chaia, Gonzalo Garcia-Muñoz, Philipp Haugwitz, Max Cesar, and Andre de Oliveira Vaz defined digital maturity using four categories: government, foundations, economy, and society. The study also laid out steps that Mexico could take to improve its digital maturity. Of these four factors, Mexico has the most work to do in digital economy and digital foundations, categories in which its scores are just below average – and which are highly correlated.

Digital maturity of Mexico according to McKiney

The bad news first

Digital foundations essentially encompass the ability of citizens to participate in a digital society. This means internet access, mobile networks, and so forth. “In 2016, Mexico had just 13 fixed-line broadband subscriptions for every 100 inhabitants” the analysis found. “The rate of subscription to mobile broadband is higher, at 61%, but this still leaves a sizeable portion of the population unconnected and thus spending additional time and money getting to physical centers to access government services.” This lack of access causes Mexico to rank 93rd overall in the digital foundations category. 

Mexico’s digital economy, in turn, is hindered by its “shaky” digital foundations. It sits in 92nd place of all countries surveyed. There is a lack of access to high-speed internet, as stated, as well as an unreliable postal service and a lack of bank accounts among the population, with just 40% of citizens aged over 15 having an account. These factors decrease the country’s potential to develop an e-commerce industry that is widely and conveniently used. Exports of ICT goods, as well, account for an astonishing less than 1% of all exported goods and services.

And now for the good news

Mexico’s digital government, which ranks 39th overall, has made great strides in recent years. The creation of, for example, provides "a one-stop portal that consolidates 34,000 databases from 250 government institutions and 5,400 public services. The platform is described as the “centerpiece” of Mexico’s digitization efforts, allowing citizens easy access to important legal documents such as birth certificates, as well as automating internal processes, making workplaces tasks run more smoothly for government employees.

Despite this – and the appointment of a national digital strategy coordinator who sits on the president’s staff - Mexico “receives low scores from its citizens on their overall satisfaction with the convenience and accessibility of government services.” Citizen experience was the worst-rated of those group countries surveyed (Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States). There was also a largest perception gap between the private and public sector.

How digital can boost Mexico’s GDP

A digital society, according to the report, “can improve the quality of life for citizens by fostering greater civic participation, providing access to information, and offering new tools for health and education.” As previously shown, Mexico is pushing such platforms, including several subsections of, on which citizens can participate in public polls and discussions, and present potential digital solutions to serious societal problems such as earthquake detection systems.

Mexico is well on its way to achieving a “good” or “very good” digital maturity rating (right now, the country is “acceptable”). According to McKinsey, “There are three basic initiatives Mexican government leaders could consider putting on top of their priority lists [to speed the transition into the upper echelons of digitization].”

First, the Mexican government must define a digital vision and strategy. Second, it must link that vision to policymaking. Entwining the two ensures that digitization acts as a “lever” to a policy’s success. “To establish a clear link between its digital vision and public value, Mexico’s incoming administration may want to consider revisiting the country’s "National Digital Strategy" for 2013 and aligning it with Mexico’s current and future needs, as well as with the new government’s priorities,” the report states. A “test and learn” attitude toward linking digital vision and policy will also be necessary, as the only way to avoid repeated mistakes is by closely evaluating those that have been made, then planning accordingly. Adopting this attitude, according to the report, will necessitate more flexible budgetary strategies.   

The third suggested initiative is all about power to the people. Successful digital transformations are those that are centered around the citizens, rather than the institutions that serve and govern them. This means service delivery is key, and centralization of digitalization efforts – initially, perhaps, in the form of a council that would oversee governmental transformation – could greatly aid government agencies in getting the people what they desire. As Mexico transforms, so would the ways in which ideas are generated and put into action. For instance, the United States has the US Digital Service, which works with the White House, and Singapore relies greatly on the Government Technology Agency, which reports to the country’s president and implements digital strategies.

Digital maturity benchmark

Filling in the cracks

Because Mexico ranks on the low end of the “digital foundations” category, it is obvious that the other four categories, which by nature fall under the “foundations” umbrella, are potentially negatively affected. As such, McKinsey offers five steps that could be taken to strengthen the country’s digital infrastructure. 

Private companies, for one, could be offered incentives to provide broadband internet to “marginalized” communities, such as those in Oaxaca and Chiapas. The study points to India as an example, where the government-created National Optical Fibre Network (BharatNet) “successfully brought broadband services to approximately 115,000 villages, aiming to deliver broadband connectivity to 250,000 villages overall.” 

Talent is also an issue. “In recent years, Mexico has made significant strides to boost the number of college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM),” the report states. In 2016, 25% of university graduates with a STEM degree. 

But degrees aren’t so much the problem as education in general. “Only 17% of Mexicans graduate from college, making the talent pool small.” Programs that keep primary and secondary school teachers in the loop are a must – as are “reskilling” programs meant to train a percentage of the workforce that is soon to be displaced by technology such as automation. 

Rounding out the five suggestions are a system that easily and simply explains new regulations regarding technology - an invaluable resource for startups; the development of cybersecurity units required to monitor the security of such a large, overarching transformation; and a streamlined, interoperable model for data sharing across multiple government agencies. 

It’s an investment

The challenges and obstacles in Mexico’s path to digital transformation are not inconsiderable, but are neither without long-term reward. “Going digital will require an investment of financial resources, extensive coordination among the multiple stakeholders and levels of government, and new regulations governing the growing e-commerce and fintech sectors. It most likely would entail participation incentives for the private sector, since governments should not attempt to 'go it alone.' In the end, both sectors of society stand to reap the value digitization will sow.” 

Related: Mexico leads Latin America in robotization, followed by Brazil and Argentina.