Europeans Still Working the Kinks Out of E-Commerce

Consumers in the United States are seeing several improvements when they hit the online stores this holiday season, a sign that retailers that do business online have learned from their past mistakes.

According to Accenture’s third-annual holiday eFullfillment survey, which included for the first time this year France, Germany, Spain and Britain, e-commerce in America remains far ahead of key European markets.

European e-tailers, the study found, are at roughly the same level of performance as U.S. sites were in 1999. For example, for providing in-stock information, only 32 percent of European e-tailers show this information, ranging from a low of 8 percent in Spain to a high of 58 percent in France. This compares to the 44 percent rate seen in the United States back in 1999. In 2000, 38 percent of U.S. sites offered in-stock ordering information. For 2001, it has risen to 72 percent.

U.S. sites seem to be making sure that consumers know what is going on every step of the way with their online order. For example, email confirmations for orders were received on 81 percent of orders in 2000, rising to 98 percent this year.

The study also found that it takes a bit longer to place orders this year, but not because the Web sites are slow. E-tailers are expanding their product lines and it is taking consumers longer to find and navigate to the products they want. Typical ordering time increased to 13 minutes this year, compared to only 10 minutes in 2000.

“That’s still a lot faster than most store visits. Online buying still has the edge on convenience. Pure e-tailer’s sites continue to be a bit faster than traditional retailers’ or catalogers’, reflecting apparently better Web-savvy designs,” said Bob Mann, an associate partner at Accenture.

Accenture found that e-commerce orders seem to be arriving at their destinations with about the same speed as they were in 2000 (a bit less that seven days, on average). According to Mann, e-tailers are once again padding their arrival estimates, making promises of 10 to 14 days for goods to arrive. They usually arrive sooner.

Shipping costs, often a concern among e-commerce users, are almost exactly the same in 2001 as they were in 2000, averaging an additional 15 percent of product costs, despite price increases for many major parcel carriers since last year’s study. However, fewer sites are offering free shipping — only two companies in this year’s study, down from 14 in 2000.

European online consumers face very different challenges than consumers in the United States. Language and country barriers have a big influence on which companies consumers can shop and how easy it is to place an order and actually receive it. This is despite the efforts that have been underway for many years to create a seamless trading community for the continent.

In reality, there are very few Pan-European sites. Most e-commerce sites serve only one country, and even large, cross-border e-tailers like Amazon and Etam have country-specific Web pages that use the consumer’s language, and that handle seemingly simple things like different street address formats. Consumers are bound to run into problems if they try to “force” a country site to ship to a different country.

But European sites are actually a bit faster for placing orders than sites in the United States were in 2001. European sites average 11 minutes to place an order, with France doing best at 7 minutes, and Spanish sites being slowest at 14 minutes. According to the survey, it appears European sites are less complex that their U.S. counterparts and are easier to navigate as a result. The longer time for the Spanish sites is at least partially due to their apparently greater emphasis on security — they often requested passport or bank information before an order would be accepted.

National Postal Services have a much greater influence on online buying in Europe than in the United States. Quite often it is the only choice for shipping that consumers get, and it is possible that lower reliability for postal delivery is the reason for fewer delivery promises. But shipping charges in Europe are much lower for consumers than they are in the United States. Overall shipping charges are about 20 percent less in Europe, averaging just over 11 percent of product value. Germany has the lowest rates at less than 8 percent, with Spain more than doubling that at over 16 percent.

“The Internet is a great place to shop, and it is going to get better in Europe very quickly if companies take the U.S. lessons to heart,” said Jon Bumstead an Accenture Partner based in Britain.

Accenture’s study is interesting because the firm’s Supply Chain practice gives 18 of its employees a credit card number and sets them loose to shop online. The U.S. portion of the study attempted to place 530 orders at 85 different Web sites. The orders, which ranged from books and toys to clothing, were placed over a seven-day period at different times of the day and delivered to Atlanta, Chicago or San Francisco.

The European part of the study attempted to place 392 orders at 81 different Web sites. In Europe, the Supply Chain group used 25 of its professionals with native language skills to do the ordering. Orders were placed over the same exact time period as for the U.S. part of the study and were delivered to Barcelona, Frankfurt, London, and Paris.

The sites where Accenture’s people spent their dough were selected for the study by combining last year’s list of sites with information from a variety of industry associations naming the top Internet retailers. In total, more than 1,700 products were purchased on almost 1,000 orders in five countries, amounting to over $30,000 of merchandise. Once the orders are delivered, they are checked for accuracy.

Roughly $20,000 of the merchandise will be donated to children’s charities, while the remaining items will be sent back in order to gauge companies’ performance on returns. Final results on how the returns were handled will be available in January 2002.

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