The parcels, mail and international markets in which we operate are dynamic, and developments within them lead to both opportunities and threats for PostNL. The Covid-19 pandemic continued to impact the market in 2021, and will affect the global economy in general going forward.
It is also impacting the lives of our customers, consumers, partners and suppliers, and therefore our strategy. For example, the crisis has boosted the shift from offline to online purchasing among consumers, accelerating e-commerce growth.
Globally, the pandemic has created supply chain issues, which have led to both delays and significant increases in the transportation cost of goods. And in the Netherlands, the pandemic has contributed to a further tightening of the labour market and increases in absenteeism rates.
In response to these events, our first priority has been on ensuring the health and safety of our people. As well as a responsibility we have towards our people, this has also helped us provide uninterrupted services across our operations during the pandemic, something we are proud of.
We continue to proactively increase the adaptability of our organisation in order to take advantage of changing circumstances. Examples include increasing (flexibility in) our network capacity to stay ahead of e-commerce growth, creating new delivery options to satisfy customer and consumer demand, and using digital solutions for office staff allowing them to structurally and effectively work from home more often, now and in the future.
Geopolitical and economic events
Growth in e-commerce
Consumer in control
Acceleration of digital transformation
For the majority of 2021 we operated in an environment dominated by the pandemic, with both a tightening and easing of Covid-19 restrictions imposed by the government. Our markets continued to be impacted by disruptions in global supply chains, for example with a reduction in the sourcing and production of raw materials and an increase in the cost of international transportation. We also faced delays in procuring vehicles and roll containers as a result of computer chip shortages. And a significant increase in freight costs from Asia to Europe influenced the volume of low-value e-commerce goods arriving from the Far East.
At the same time, we saw that politico-economic decisions by large countries are able to have a profound impact on local economies. One example is the increased volatility in energy prices that began in 2021. While in the summer, the Chinese government began clamping down on fake goods manufactured and exported out of the country, with the aim of preventing the goods from entering the global e-commerce market. This had an immediate impact on inbound e-commerce volumes from Asia. We follow global political and economic developments closely, which helps us prepare and respond swiftly to major events or decisions that could impact our value chains.
An increasingly connected world means that commercial markets are developing rapidly, driven by innovation and digitalisation. As well as creating business opportunities, such as through the use of data, these developments also represent risk. For example, in the need to protect the rights of people, for businesses to act responsibly, and the growing focus on sustainability.
To mitigate these risks, governments frequently introduce new laws and regulations that are becoming increasingly more complex. The main areas of high-impact regulations on PostNL's businesses include postal services in the Netherlands, labour, international trading, data protection and privacy, and environmental management.
New or adapted regulations influence the way we do business in the markets we operate in. One example is the new EU VAT rules, which saw all commercial goods imported into the EU become subject to VAT on 1 July 2021. This had an adverse impact on e-commerce volumes into Europe, particularly from Asia. Other examples include Brexit and changes to the Dutch postal law.
Our approach is to proactively engage with governments and other regulators on a regular basis to better understand the impact of upcoming regulatory changes. This helps us prepare effectively so that we can comply fully and in time.
We see compliance as an important mechanism to safeguard sound business conduct, protect the rights and well being of people and operate commercially within predefined boundaries. The chapter "Regulatory compliance management" provides a detailed overview on our approach toward compliance, a description of the main events and the most relevant developments in different laws and regulations.
In general, the e-commerce market continues to grow strongly, partially boosted by Covid-19. In the Benelux, the expansion in traditional e-commerce markets is ongoing, and relatively new markets, such as food and health, are developing rapidly. In 2021 we saw that our B2B volumes were negatively impacted by the pandemic.
Internationally, 2021 was a year of contrasts. Good growth across the board continued in the first half of the year, but the market faced a substantial drop in volumes in the second half of the year.
This drop was caused primarily by the new VAT rules introduced by the EU and regulatory changes in China (both outlined above) which heavily impacted inbound e-commerce volumes for the Far East.
These events, plus the shortage of raw materials and increased international transportation costs, had a double-digit impact on our international Spring activities in the second half of the year. It is uncertain when and to what extent volume growth from Asia will pick up again.
While the e-commerce market across Europe continues to grow strongly, Brexit had an impact on shipments to and from the United Kingdom. Despite this, Brexit led to Spring gaining a number of extra customers, offering customs' solutions for customers in Europe.
We believe our comprehensive networks, proximity to the consumer and coverage across the Benelux enable many developing sectors to grow online.
In response to the growing number of peak moments throughout the year, we continuously invest in our networks while increasing the flexibility of our operations.
Consumers increasingly expect digital alternatives to traditional services, and want greater control over their shipments. Examples include the sale of stamps, rerouting of parcels and preparation of returns. In addition, they want to be notified about the shipment of their parcels quickly, conveniently and reliably. For PostNL, this means we need to focus continually on the consumer experience and consumer journey, ensuring that we offer a full range of high-quality services that meet the evolving demands of the e-commerce marketplace.
Rapid developments in technology impact the way businesses operate. Current and future trends that will impact our sector include the use of data, which will help logistics companies manage demand peaks, provide insights into supply and demand forecasts, and help with route optimisation. Digitalisation will also lead to smoother ordering, automatic fulfilment services, and better payment and delivery processes, creating a more efficient supply chain. And a range of digital alternatives for mail, such as electronic invoicing, social media or other digital marketing services, continue to contribute to a declining mail market.
The digitalisation shift requires logistic service providers to operate faster and more efficiently to rapidly process all individual orders. With parts of logistic processes still being operated manually, the potential for automation and digitalisation is high. As the technology becomes faster, more accurate and more affordable, automation will play an even greater role in our industry in the years to come. Robotisation will boost logistics and productivity while supporting 24-hour processes. Robots will adopt complementary roles in the value chain, assisting workers with planning, fulfilment and last-mile deliveries. This will have more impact on mail than parcels.
In general, the labour market in the Netherlands is extremely tight, illustrated by very low unemployment rates and a record number of open vacancies. Covid-19 continues to contribute to increasing volatility in the market, for example as a result of government measures and higher absenteeism rates. This leads to profound challenges for many companies, including PostNL, to hire sufficient numbers of qualified people both in operations and for office functions. For PostNL, this is especially true when it comes to filling mail delivery positions.
Our focus is on first creating a safe and healthy work environment, enabling us to deliver high-quality services responsibly and effectively. This is followed by effective recruitment and onboarding, while continually looking for ways to improve our labour practices, particularly in the area of social laws and regulatory compliance. At the same time, effective collaboration with our logistics partners is crucial for our success. Based on changes in societal expectations, our drive to improve our service quality and customer experience, as well as sustainable development, we are enhancing our labour model with our logistics partners to make it future proof. One aspect of this is ensuring that the labour model we develop with them complies at all times with labour laws and regulations, the desired customer experience, our sustainability goals, as well as societal expectations.
Sustainability is playing a key role in the way society is changing and the way companies operate. Many are increasingly focusing on the longer-term impact of their businesses. PostNL is no different. We take our responsibilities seriously and believe that sustainability is our license to operate. We want to, and stakeholders expect us to, operate a company with sustainability at its core, making progress on a range of environmental, social and governance topics. This includes the growing concern about climate change, increased attention for human rights, greater focus on diversity and inclusion, as well as being more transparent about how we conduct business responsibly. Sustainability is about responsible business. It is also a driver for business model innovation, for example by transitioning towards emission-free last-mile delivery, and enhancing our employment models.
The acceleration of e-commerce makes the market interesting for existing and, in particular, new players. The rise in flash delivery is one example of how the market is changing. Meanwhile, large e-commerce players made investments in their Benelux networks, while new delivery players and others were particularly active in developing niche services and expanding self-delivery and their retail locations. Large e-commerce players are also spreading their volumes through dual or multi-vendorship models. Going forward, we want to maintain our market-leading position in the Netherlands in the B2C segment by enhancing the customer experience through digital innovations, our sustainability profile, competitive pricing to stay ahead of challengers, investing in and expanding our network, and focusing on further improving quality and the Net Promoter Score (NPS).
“Rapid developments in technology impact business operations”
Competition in the Dutch postal market focuses on three elements. A few postal operators have built a position in niche segments by combining mail volumes into large consignments and handing these to PostNL. Additionally, we see a large number of small, locally-active postal operators connected to sheltered workspaces offering postal services in their local areas; mail destined for outside these areas is handed to PostNL. We work together with these sheltered workspaces where possible, also in the delivery of our mail. There are also now a range of digital alternatives for mail, such as electronic invoicing, social media or other digital marketing services, which continue to contribute to declining mail-market volumes
The steep growth of international e-commerce, particularly in the first-half of 2021, and the growing impact of digitalisation, is changing the logistics market rapidly, leading to a variety of opportunities. This also means that the international arena is also becoming more competitive. Traditional players are seeking to strengthen their position, while different types of start-ups, for example those focussing on value-chain orchestration, end-to-end logistics or digital support, are entering the market. Large e-commerce and/or platform businesses are also expanding their geographical coverage and role in the logistics value chain, selecting the best logistic partnerships or, if needed, setting up their own logistics networks. At the same time, regulatory changes, such as the introduction of the new VAT rules, can significantly impact international e-commerce, as we saw in the second half of 2021. With the trade lane from Asia to Europe forming a substantial element in the business model of Spring, we may be more vulnerable than our competitors to the effects of such events. In other areas, such as expanding our logistical network in Europe, our flexible and customer-focused approach enables us to respond quickly to, and profit from, market dynamics.