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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Why private equity is betting on your online shopping habit

Focus falls on geeky corner of the online shopping industry as the next frontier

Souq.com, the regional online retailer, was bought by Amazon this year. Satish Kumar / The National
Souq.com, the regional online retailer, was bought by Amazon this year. Satish Kumar / The National

Private equity firms, sitting on record piles of cash, are targeting a geeky corner of the online shopping industry as the next frontier in the hunt for returns.

Payment-processing companies, which make the technology that enables Web and mobile purchases, are getting a flurry of investments this year as buyers look for ways to profit from the shift to online spending.

Buyout firms see the market as fragmented and ripe for consolidation. It is also a key part of online retail, an industry that is growing rapidly. Retail e-commerce sales rose 23 per cent in the past year through June to US$2.29 trillion, according to the researcher EMarketer. The firm predicts online shopping will account for more than 16 per cent of total retail sales globally by 2021, hitting $4.48tn. In the Middle East, e-retailers such as Souq.com have attracted big players and was itself bought by Amazon this year.

“Our view is that status-quo is not an option in payments today,” said Jeff Paduch, the managing director at Advent International. “Regulation and technology are driving marketplace change and lowering barriers to entry and creating more competition. It has never been easier to enter and build scale in payments.”

Spending on deals for internet financial services firms have surged more than seven fold in the last 12 months through Tuesday and 2017 is already the busiest year for deals in the industry in more than a decade, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Blackstone Group and CVC Capital Partners agreed to buy Paysafe Group, which provides technology that enables digital wallets as well as online and mobile payments, for about $3.9 billion on Friday.

Danish payments firm Nets, with a market value of about $4.6bn, said in July that it was reviewing options. The firm has attracted takeover interest from companies including Permira, Nordic Capital and Hellman & Friedman, people familiar with the matter have said.

Permira agreed to buy a stake in Klarna Bank, a Swedish payment solutions provider with 60 million customers, in July.

“We are only halfway through a consolidation in the industry that will take years to play out,” Mr Paduch said.

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It is not only private equity firms seeking deals. US payment processing firm Vantiv agreed to acquire Worldpay Group, an e-commerce payments company, for about $10.4bn, the companies said on Wednesday.

Ingenico Group reached a deal for Bambora for $1.8bn last month, and Global Payments agreed on Thursday to buy units of Active Network from Vista Equity Partners for $1.2bn in cash and stock.

Private equity’s interest in the burgeoning industry marks a shift for many buyout shops more accustomed to making money revamping staid consumer brands than investing in innovation. These firms are sitting on record amounts of so-called dry powder, money they have raised from investors and have not deployed, thanks to high levels of liquidity and relatively few attractive takeover targets. That has pushed more of these companies to look for new places to earn their returns.

“Growth and change in the industry is being driven by evolving technology and customer requirements,” said Luca Bassi, the managing director at Bain Capital. The sector has low barriers to entry which allows new “challengers” to enter the market. Private equity firms can provide strategic assistance and investment, he said.

Dry powder reached $1.4tn at the end of last year, the highest level since at least 2007, according to data from Preqin. That number rose to $1.6tn in August, the alternative asset data firm said.

Consumers are using cash less and less, relying instead on debit and credit cards and payment details stored online, according to the 2017 World Payments Report from Capgemini and BNP Paribas.

Non-cash transactions grew 11 per cent globally from 2014 to 2015, the highest growth in a decade. “Mobile proximity” payments from mobile wallets, which store card and payment details for customers on smartphones, are expected to grow to $53bn in 2019 from $3bn in 2013, according to the report.

The trend will be helped along by changes to regulations that encourage different payment systems to work together as well as improving security that gives customers confidence that their financial details will be kept safe, the report said.

“Electronic payments sits on the right side of history,” Mr Paduch said.

“Nonetheless, there are plenty of issues facing the market including increasing competition, regulation, disruption and the need for constant investment in technology to drive innovation.”

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