Three weeks after the collapse of an eight-storey clothing factory in Bangladesh cost the lives of – for now – more than 1,200 textile workers, thirty major fashion retailers have signed a charter that should actively improve security in Bengal factories. “A worldwide breakthrough in textile retail”, say the founders of the project. Because of the drama questions are also being asked of working conditions in a broader perspective.
British retail giant Tesco is taking drastic measures. Next to the existing recovery plan ‘building a better Tesco’, the multinational is making big write-offs on real estate and goodwill. This will cause profits before taxes to be halved when compared to the previous year. If the overall costs of the departure from the United States are also brought into the calculations, almost all of the annual profit will have disappeared.
93.6% of all American smartphone owners use their mobile in the shop, but most of the time this is not to compare prices at other stores. They do go to the website of the shop they are in: the danger of the smartphone for shopkeepers is exaggerated, say researchers of trade magazine JiWire after quite a small survey.
The human brain may be very complex, it is also easily fooled. “Supply it and people will buy it” isn’t an empty promise, as marketing professor Arne Maas showed. A simple example: have shopping carts installed with a separate compartment for fruits and vegetables and see your sales double.
Many retailers that have their roots in the saturated markets of Western Europe are at a crucial phase in their existence: they will have to look for new sources of expansion in order to avoid the fierce competition in their home markets with an ageing population, where disposable incomes are under pressure from the continuing economic crisis.
The president of Grupo Cortefiel, Anselm Van den Auwelant, may rightfully give himself (part of the) credit for the growth of one of Europe's biggest fashion groups. RetailDetail had a short interview with him when he arrived at Brussels Airport, on his way to the board of directors of JBC, one of his projects.
Everyone already knows that the Internet changes the future of shopping... but who knows what exactly these changes will be, how consumer behaviour will change and how we, the retailers, should adapt to that? Our experts will point you to the answers during the first RetailDetail Congress, but retail professor Gino Van Ossel already lifts a corner of the veil.
In the current crisis situation, consumers are starting to behave differently. They adapt to the difficult circumstances (government cuts, redundancies, …) and they do that faster than most brands do. The gap between supply and demand is here to stay, as professor Jean-Noël Kapferer of the Parisian business school HEC said on RetailDetail's Brand Debate on 9 September.
According to Kapferer, consumers in saturated markets are going through an unprecedented process of social and economic change. Gone are the classic economic principles of balance and self-regulation: in this society consumers make their own deliberate choices based on their own preferences: for example for cheap products, biological products or products of their favourite brand.
Price is still a paramount consideration, as most of the retailers' own brands have understood. Still, this is not the only reason why ever more people prefer private labels. “Retailers are much closer to their customers than the slower A-brand manufacturers. They are constantly in touch with their customers and if they decide rapidly, cut the testing phase and quickly get along with it, they can deliver really fast. The volume would be rather limited, but the effect on goodwill would be immense”, says Kapferer.
Still, A-brands have their own distinct strength: they decide the future of food and other consumer goods. Only the A-brand producers conduct research and development, only they innovate and create the consumers' needs. This is a huge advantage, but they do not make it count (enough), according to Kapferer.
That is the theory, but how do the retailers and producers themselves experience these changes? RetailDetail organised a debate with key people from both the distribution and the manufacturing and the one conclusion emerging from the beginning already was the lack of dialogue. Pepsico BeLux's general manager Wim Destoop misses “the dialogue about the future: the achievements made by the different categories should be valued much more on their merits by the trade and the industry.”
Dominique Leroy, country manager for Unilever Belgium, can subscribe to that point of view: “Why is trade making it so difficult for us to innovate? We invest huge amounts of money to deliver innovating things and our costs are continuously increasing. Just give us some time and space to make our new products successful.”
Destoop even suggested that private labels are over-represented in the stores – a suggestion that Dirk Depoorter, director of Spar Retail, rejected immediately: “We only have 45% private label”, he said. Moreover, he claims that this is often not a result of choice: “most of our private labels are in the fresh department, as almost all the A-brands have vanished from there. In other categories, the A-brands make sure we grow, something that private labels can not manage.”
Pascal Léglise, director private label at Carrefour, claimed that A-brands will never lose their place in the stores: “We can not simply drop the A-brands. Of course, we are eager to develop our own brands, but we can not make the A-brands pay the price.”
Kapferer ended with the reconciling words that producers and retailers are “like a sheep that crosses the river on the back of a crocodile: they can not constantly fight, because they need each other. Retailers do need A-brands as locomotives of innovation and progress; without A-brands we would have a boring world”, as the brand professor concluded an interesting debate.
Two November will be the day of reckoning for Eckhard Cordes, chairman of the executive board of the German multinational Metro Group AG. The mother holding of Media Markt, Saturn, Metro, Makro, Galeria Inno and many more will then decide about Cordes's position. In a story that could easily feature in a soap series on tv, Cordes has the two major stockholders on his side, but faces fierce opposition of minority stockholder and Media Markt founder Erich Kellerhals.
Even though Cordes still has a contract until October 2012, the November meeting of the supervisory board can already decide on a contract renewal. Mike Dawson, editor at German newspaper Lebensmittel Zeitung, thinks it will be a disputed decision, as “Cordes has been especially good at creating negative publicity”.
Cordes's biggest problem is his fierce rivalry with one of the most important shareholders of the Metro Group retail empire. Being the founder of one of the major companies that merged into Media Group, Erich Kellerhals (72) has an important minority share of Metro Group... and the right to veto. Any of Cordes's decisions needs the approval of 80% of shareholders, and of course that of Kellerhals himself.
Several important cases are still waiting for Cordes's approval, such as the selling of underperforming units like Kaufhof (department stores) and Real (hypermarkets). Both have been terribly delayed by the strict (to say the least) company policy regarding his decisions. The flotation of consumer electronics chain Media-Saturn is also still pending: that process would go considerably smoother without people watching his fingers according to Cordes – another of his arguments to limit the powers of people like Kellerhals. Last March, Cordes obtained an important victory, as the retail powerhouse considerably limited the rights of minority stockholders (totalling 21% of Media Group's shares).
Kellerhals on the other hand remains critical and assertive: on the press conference announcing the 2010 company results, he even managed to cast a shadow on the excellent company results by demanding Cordes's immediate departure. With abundant body language and strong words, Kellerhals made sure everyone understood that he was merely defending his life's work. “I will not allow that mr. Cordes destroys what made us big and influential”, as the hale old man explained.
The German media happily covered the personal feud extensively and pictured Cordes as the personification of the huge, authoritarian conglomerate that wants to silence self-made man Erich Kellerhaus – rendering the former terribly unpopular.
A major disadvantage for Cordes is of course that he has reached a satisfying outcome in none of the aforementioned cases. There is still no buyer for Kaufhof, still no peace at Media-Saturn and according to certain rumours, Cordes is even withdrawing the sale of hypermarkets Real. Moreover, Metro's shares have lost half of their worth in the four years of Cordes's reign at Metro Group – another argument for the shareholders not to like him.
Still, the two majority shareholders at Metro Group, the Haniel and Schmidt-Ruthenbeck families, have confirmed their support for Cordes. “He deserves our support because the shareholders think the continuing public doubt regarding Cordes and his position should end soon”, as Dawson states.
Their worries are justified, because no-one knows what would happen if Kellerhals gets his way and Eckhard Cordes has to leave Metro Group after 2 November. There certainly is no successor present to take over, because “like all men of power, he (Cordes) has strived not to groom a serious contender who could challenge him”, as Lebensmittel Zeitung's Dawson thinks. He continues to say that “they may recruit from outside a top banker, e.g. Deutsche Bank CEO or similar”.
Still, that doubt will linger, along with the feud with Kellerhals. Everyone, and Kellerhals in the first place, will watch Cordes very closely if he receives a contract renewal – even if the two families have pledged their support. “The conflict with Kellerhals is not over yet and I don't think the Supervisory board meeting will solve the problem. Kellerhals's blood is boiling and he wants revenge. He is old and rich and can not be bought with a judicial settlement. I don't see this conflict end without some serious bloodshed”, as Dawson concludes.
E-commerce is one of the most modern and interesting branches of industry in the European Union. Quite surprisingly, its growth is remarkably faster in countries that already have an important e-commerce market, and virtually non-existent in countries without a significant e-commerce market.
That is the most interesting conclusions in a recent report ordered by the European Parliament on e-commerce in the EU. Other topics include the limiting effect of fear for fraud on the number of people engaging in internet purchases and the reasons for the huge difference in the popularity of cross-border purchases.
If there is one key factor for the success of e-commerce in a country, it is the presence of... easy internet access. That might sound obvious, but is nonetheless worth keeping in mind. Sweden leads the European way in the number of internet users (91% of all citizens), Luxembourg and the Netherlands follow very closely (90%). Belgium ranks ninth (78%), while the average for the whole Union is 69%. Greece (44%), Bulgaria (43%) and Romania (36%) are the three countries where less than half of the population is an internet user.
When the broadband criterion is added, Sweden remains at the top (with 86% of Swedes accessing internet via broadband), before Denmark (83%) and Finland (81%). Belgium and the Netherlands are fourth and fifth, just missing out of the 80% mark but staying well clear of the EU average of 59%. The three worst performers are no surprise: Greece (39%), Bulgaria (34%) and Romania (20%). The only EU powerhouse to miss the 50% mark is Italy, where only 42% of the citizens enjoy broadband internet access.
Looking at the number of citizens who have actually bought something online (measured from October 2009 to October 2010), the results are very – but not exactly – similar. The frontrunners (each with about two thirds of their population) are Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands – but they are joined by the UK. Same story for the bottom group, where the three expected countries (Romania and Bulgaria with about 5%, Greece on 12%) are joined by Lithuania. The EU average is 40%, which is slightly higher than Belgium on 38%.
This number has doubled since 2005, according to the report, but in an unexpected way: strong growth in countries where e-commerce was already going well, almost no growth in the countries that were in 2005 – and still are in 2010 – almost undiscovered land for internet retailers. Surprisingly, the correlation in this graph is almost as strong as the one between e-commerce and internet access: the strongest e-commerce growths were in Sweden, Denmark, the UK, the Netherlands and Germany; a zero-growth or just slightly better was achieved in Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Lithuania and Portugal. There were two major deviations: France (the largest e-commerce market in 2005, dropped to seventh in 2007) grew slower than expected, while Sweden (from fifteenth to fourth thanks to a 50% growth in five years) went the other way.
Not mentioned in the report however is an even stronger connection between the number of people buying goods or services online, and the percentage of advertising money spent on internet ads. The UK leads the way with 27%, while the same familiar sounding names Denmark, Sweden and Netherlands form the rest of the front runners, all scoring above 20%. Belgium scored 11% - comfortably in the average group – and Romania holds the wooden spoon with less than 2%. Romania and penultimate Slovakia (3%) were the only two countries to saw the online ad's market share drop compared to the year before, while Greece witnessed a 49% rise (!) to leave these two far behind.
The second focus in the EP report was how many people engaged in cross-border purchases using the internet. Only 23% of the people who bought something online, did that from a seller based in another EU member state – meaning that about three quarter of internet purchases were made either from a store in the same country, or from (mostly) American sources.
Five countries saw over half of their online purchases coming from other European countries, and all of them were small(er) countries whose languages are also spoken in larger neighbouring countries. Malta leads the way with over 90%, closely followed by Luxembourg and Cyprus (both over 80%). Two larger countries that still fit the description also hop over the 50% bar: Austria and Belgium; a third – Ireland – just passing underneath.
Conversely, the worst achieving countries (15% or worse) have either no other country with the same language (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary) or are the 'bigger brother' of one of the top countries (Germany and the UK). It is noteworthy that only seven member states perform worse than the EU average. Despite their supposed chauvinism, France (near 30%) are by far the most foreign-oriented of the EU powerhouses.
The report worryingly states that only 14% of EU companies sell goods or services online, a number which is not on the rise. Belgium is the surprising leader in this chart, with 26% of Belgian companies also having an e-commerce branch. Sweden and Denmark follow closely, which is not the case for – again – Bulgaria, where a disappointing 3% of companies have a web shop to offer. Italy, Latvia and Romania again form Bulgaria's company in the bottom part of the list.
The report continues to reach a number of interesting, and sometimes surprising, conclusions. One of the most eye-catching is this: many people think that an internet market is good for consumers, cutting out middle men (such as travel agents) and offering large quantities of interesting offers. Even when leaving the higher fraud risk out of the equation, the report concludes that this is not necessarily the case. An important drawback of the internet is the huge flow of information, also for (interesting) offers. This makes proper market research either very time-consuming (and expensive) or even completely impossible.
Proper market research is also hindered by the process of “drip-pricing”: the system in which the price for a product as it appears on the front page is gradually raised through extra costs and taxes. Airlines for example often use this method to raise the base price by adding luggage costs, airport taxes, transaction costs etc. While not strictly illegal, this is a direct offence against open market rules. It works however, following the psychological “loss aversion” theory: upon seeing the first cheap price, the customer considers the product as already his and to avoid losing it, (s)he is ready to pay a lot of extra costs.
The theory of disappearing middlemen is wrong too. While certain intermediaries have almost completely disappeared, a new set of them has emerged: think of price comparison sites, search engines, social network sites to read and post user reviews, internet service providers etc. The most important new intermediaries in e-commerce are those who provide infrastructure and those who assist in the choice, either objectively or biased (e.g. sponsored links).
Advertisement is, according to the report, a very important part of e-commerce: not only in helping existing, valuable sites to remain free of charge for its users/readers, but also for brands to create a positive and trustworthy name for themselves. One of the most important barriers for consumers to buy online, is the fear for fraud. Goods are not tangible and salespeople can not be seen: e-commerce involves a lot of trust. Research has shown however that advertisement is an important factor in creating a positive image, even if consumers know that an ad is a company's own, biased message.
Building on data from Europe's statistical service Eurostat, the report finds other barriers too, ranging from concerns about lack of trust (26%), lack of security (64%) or lack of IT-skills (16%). 12% has not engaged in e-commerce because they have no payment card, whereas 62% “prefers to shop in person”. This lack of security is largely fed with actual problems: only one percent reported to really have had problems in this area.
Belgians appear to be the luckiest e-commerce users: they both lead the list of countries with the least experience with trouble (11%, compared to the EU average of 17%) and the list of countries with the highest satisfaction in complaint handling (36% “very satisfied”, compared to the average of 21%). The Dutch find themselves comfortably in the middle, while Romania and Bulgaria are far worse off.
The most important barrier for companies not to engage in cross-border e-commerce is the complex legal situation: under the European rules, a lot of different national and sub-national legal systems exist. The multitude of different languages is also a barrier, both when setting up a website and when dealing with complaints. Payment methods might also be very different from one country to another, causing even more trouble for international e-commerce.
The report ends with a number of recommendations towards the EU, especially concerning harmonisation of legislation to create a more integrated single market, improving consumer awareness of the legislation to protect them, strengthening support for businesses who want to participate in e-commerce and restricting “potentially abusive pricing practices” such as drip-pricing.
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