In Search Of A Few Good Etailers

I just got back to France after a three-week business trip through the US — my apologies to those who noticed that I missed writing for a couple of weeks — and I was really struck by how pervasive and ubiquitous the Internet has become in the states.

Those who were pooh-poohing it six months ago are now online as are their mothers, their grandparents and their kids. And most of what they seem to be doing is shopping, judging by the plethora of e-commerce sites and number of ads, both online and offline.

Since I’m always interested in tracking the rate of change in the US compared to Europe, this new level of pervasiveness caught my attention. And I couldn’t help but wonder how long before the same level is achieved in Europe?

Not that Europe is as far behind as most seem to assume. While it varies from country to country, the level of awareness and the use of the Internet in Europe recalls that of the US about 12 to18 months ago. That’s when major Internet service providers like AOL and MSN started using prime-time TV to promote their services, and other advertisers became more systematic about signing their print and TV ads with their URL.

The public was exposed to Internet-oriented news articles on an almost daily basis, half of which were positive and half of which mongered fear. Remember all the articles about porn, neo-Nazis, bomb builders, and redirects to credit card thieves in Romania? The level and type of press coverage is very similar in most European countries here now. News reports alternatively describe the Internet as an exotic, distant phenomenon, as a zone of danger and dastardly deeds, or a forum for smart business practices of direct benefit to consumers.

In Europe, the pace of awareness and adoption should accelerate now that the major national telecoms have understood the Internet as an opportunity rather than a threat. The telecoms have consolidated their positions and are beginning to push Net access, rather than block it.

The only thing that’s really missing in Europe is the thing that makes the Internet truly ubiquitous in the US: Cash-rich and active venture capital and stock markets that create Internet news on every page and Internet stocks in every portfolio. That, too, will come. And sooner rather than later, I would bet.

This being said, it was interesting that many Americans, and even many Europeans, are often surprised to find there is already an active population of consumers and merchants on the Internet in Europe. The truth is, there’s more going on than can be seen in a superficial glance.

With effort, the Americans might be forgiven their hubris and assumption about their sole superiority when it comes to all things Internet, and the way they tend to consider the rest of the world as a backwater. The Europeans might be forgiven their skepticism and assumption that “it’ll never happen here” based as it is in a culture of im-possibility and hoarding, rather than of possibility and expansion.

But moving beyond old assumptions is what the Internet — and indeed this column — is about.

Internet marketers who are digging deeper to understand and act on what is really going on in Europe are being well rewarded. The conventional wisdom from most analysts is that Europe is two years behind the US, or that you have to wait for 10 percent household penetration, or that the French love their Minitel, or that Europeans are afraid to use their credit cards online and so on.

But I’m not convinced that is true. In fact, my clients and other early movers are finding that Europeans can be quite enthusiastic online buyers.

A recent survey by OTEC found that UK consumers lead the way in the value of their online purchases: One million UK web users spent an average of $325 each in the third quarter of 1998. The UK lead is due in no small part to the fact that UK consumers have the easiest access (because of language) to US e-commerce sites.

In addition, many leading US sites are localizing their sites into the UK market, including, Travelocity, Expedia, Auto-by-tel and others. The survey found the most avid Internet shoppers were the Scandinavians, of which approximately 10 to 20 percent had made purchases via the Internet.

And as a testimony to the power of offering a recognizable brand name, a superior user experience and especially a genuine value, it’s worth noting that eight US e-commerce sites were on virtually everyone’s shopping list from Helsinki to Barcelona.

If there’s more than eight brave souls out there reading this column, let me know. It’s clear there’s already good business being done — and to be done — out there in the international marketspace.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.