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.
E-commerce most popular in countries with...
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.
... (broadband) internet
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%.
No such thing as "the handicap of a head start"
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.
The powers of advertising
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.
Only one in four purchases is cross-border
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.
Belgium has most companies online
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.
E-commerce not good for consumers
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.
... because of "creative" pricing strategies
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.
... because of a new kind of intermediaries
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).
... because it really depends on ads
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.
Consumers fear fraud, companies fear complexity
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 are the lucky ones
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.
Complexity main barrier for companies
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.
"Harmonise and strengthen legislation"
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.