European E-Tailers Face Regulatory, Cultural Barriers

The differences in retail regulations among European nations correlate strongly with less online shopping, according to a report by Forrester Research, which recommends European retailers consider local barriers and consumer experience when planning online strategies.

All around the world, convenience and price top the list of reasons people shop online, but their importance wanes where payments, regulation and scale hold back shopping. For its report, Forrester examined data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on national-level retail regulations on pricing, discounts and store opening hours. For example, the light regulatory hands in Britain and Sweden are most conducive to online shopping — whereas Southern Europe’s strong laws against pricing promotions and discounts and the strict opening-hours regulations of German-speaking countries are emblematic of wide-ranging restrictions on retail trade.

“Cultural differences matter, but payment issues, regulations and domestic market size are the dominant reasons why consumers don’t buy online,” said Jed Kolko, Forrester Technographics analyst. “Europeans have wildly different expectations about payment for goods, both online and offline, and consumers who prefer using credit cards or debit cards to pay for online or offline purchases are much more likely to shop online. The Swedes, the Swiss, Spaniards and Italians prefer using cash, while the French are fondest of checks and Germans, the Swiss, and Austrians want the option to pay by invoice. Only U.K. consumers cite credit cards among their top three payment preferences. So to succeed, retailers selling online across Europe must offer a multitude of payment options.”

Online consumers in large countries like Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain are half as likely to shop online as those in the smaller countries. Online retailers need scale, and larger countries have domestic markets sufficient to provide scale without having to face cross-border challenges. Having more domestic retailers means that more products are available online; it also introduces competition, lowering prices and improving service relative to smaller countries. Consumers that prefer to pay by credit card, are also more likely to shop online because of the convenience and around-the-clock availability. Where retail is tightly regulated, the decision to shop online depends more on whether consumers find online or in-person shopping more enjoyable. Where regulations are less onerous, cumbersome low prices stand out as the reason why people shop online.

“Our three barriers to European e-commerce — payments, regulation and scale — affect all online categories, but not equally,” said William Reeve, Forrester’s group director of European Data Products. “Certain categories work well even in adverse contexts, while others have no hope. Books, music and videos are the most sensitive to payments and regulation: They depend heavily on consumer comfort with online payment and are much more popular in larger countries. Travel suffers from regulation, but doesn’t need large domestic markets because most online travel shops are international providers or, at least, part of international alliances that create scale regardless of home market size. Computers, software and electronics work best in large markets where online competition pushes down prices and pushes up service. Finally, online grocers benefit less from scale than other online sellers due to the need for local inventories.”

In addition to the problems presented by the business climate in Europe, e-tailers in Europe are prone to the same pitfalls as e-tailers around the world. For example, Datamonitor estimates that between 2000 and 2005 the cumulative loss to e-tailers due to poor connectivity or mismanaged content in Europe will be $33.3 billion, compared to $113 billion worldwide.

Datamonitor classifies the frustrating experiences that users find can be summarized into four main points: difficulties loading sites; lack of compelling content; stale content; and nonlocalized content. Nearly 8 percent of all online transactions are terminated as frustrated users decide to conduct their business elsewhere. Users access nonlocalized content will find themselves unable to buy due to issues like language, currency, transport charges and, in some cases, companies that do not do business outside their home geography.

In order to help cut down on these problems, Datamonitor predicts that investment in content management will see rapid growth from an estimated annual revenue of $120 million today to approximately $2.7 billion in 2005.

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