Shopping by Internet has arrived in Europe in a big way, just in time for the Christmas season--though with a few wrinkles unfamiliar to the United States.
European tastes and preferences mount a serious challenge to those who wish to sell online here. The Web shopping site for Lands' End in Germany, for example, isn't allowed to mention its unconditional refund policy. That's because German retailers, which normally don't allow returns after 14 days, sued and won a court ruling blocking mention of it.
Many Scandinavians, it turns out, are reluctant to use credit cards, the currency of the Internet, and the French have a horreur of revealing the private information that Net retailers ask for.
"The Internet corresponds to American society very well. Americans are used to shopping around, to seeing advertising," said Therese Torris, director of European Internet commerce for Forrester Research in Amsterdam. "In some places in Europe, comparative advertising is forbidden. In others, credit cards are not well penetrated. Norway doesn't have a credit-card culture. Finland doesn't even have a shopping culture," she said.
In Scandinavia and Germany, she and others said, customers like to pay with a check after the item arrives.
Shopping online has grown more slowly on this side of the Atlantic mostly because Internet connections haven't come quickly to some countries. The Scandinavian countries were early and enthusiastic adaptees to the Internet, and Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany were close behind. But consumers in France and Belgium are just now getting online in double-digit percentages, and Italy, Spain and Portugal are barely connected.
Still, online shopping is starting to soar here. Many sites report monthly sales increases in the double digits. Jupiter Communications, an Internet research firm, estimates that e-commerce in Europe will bring in $790 million in sales this holiday season, up from a negligible amount last year. By 2003, the company predicts, 10.6 percent of Europeans will buy $18 billion worth of goods online.
A number of American and European online retailers have launched sites all over the continent, aided by European Union rules that ensure there are no tariffs or other trade barriers between nations. So companies can have a centralized warehouse in one European country and ship to the others, duty-free.
The Lands' End German and British sites, as well as its Japanese site, opened this fall to be ready for the Christmas season. Only the British site has been a success so far, said Bill Bass, vice president for e-commerce.
Bass believes it is only a matter of time before most major European nations have large numbers of consumers connected to the Internet. Lands' End plans to open shopping sites in nearly all those countries. "People all like to read the newspaper and shop and use e-mail," he said. "Behaviors on the Internet are much more similar than they are dissimilar."
But not all countries and cultures are alike. The large French book, music and video retailer Fnac, for instance, believes that Latin cultures--France, Spain, Italy and Portugal--are suspicious about sharing private information with online snoops.
So Fnac's French Web site, which sells books, CDs and videocassettes, includes a promise to customers that nothing about them--not what books they like or what credit cards they own or whom they ship to--will be shared with any other business or even used by Fnac.
"We believe that it's not ethical to sell data that says you might be interested in freemasonry or esotericism," said Jean-Christophe Hermann, president of Fnac Direct, the online shopping service. "I ordered a book about sailing from a U.S. site and was very offended afterward to start getting e-mails advertising sailing products."
Fnac's site--the biggest in the country--is French in other ways as well. It provides interviews, reviews, even a daily cultural "newspaper" as well as the books offered for sale. The idea is that Europeans don't just jump into price comparisons, but like a little education and culture as well.
Similarly, the six European Web sites for BOL, a subsidiary of German media giant Bertelsmann AG, list just books--no prices--on the opening page. Prices are a click or two later.
Europeans have shown themselves interested in saving money through Internet shopping, however. One of the hottest e-commerce sites in Europe, Sweden's Letsbuyit.com, is about nothing but bargains. According to founder John Palmer, Letsbuyit pioneered the idea of co-shopping: Items are offered for sale for a period of a few weeks. As more people sign up to buy them, the price drops.
Its biggest success so far: the sale of 10,000 Christmas trees.
Letsbuyit began in Scandinavia, Germany and Britain in April, will start up next month in four more countries, and will open in Mediterranean countries in February and March, Palmer said. Here, too, content is tailored for Europeans.
"The American sites would be laughed out of the market in the U.K.," he said. "They're a bit over the top, trying too hard, too contrived. The British see through that."
Next for Letsbuyit: a U.S. site. "America is dead easy," Palmer said. "It's one language, one currency, one distribution system."
The rapid growth of e-commerce in Europe has some worried that customers will come away disillusioned. Jupiter Communications recently surveyed top European sites and found that 65 percent of them did not respond to customers' questions within 48 hours.
"The customer expectations are getting higher and higher, so the disappointment could be worse" when customers don't get good service, said Nick Jones, commerce analyst for Jupiter.
While the share of Europeans who shop online is expected to increase rapidly over the next few years . . .
2003 (projected): 10.6%
. . . Europeans shop far less frequently by computer than do Americans.
Percentage of population that shops online
For 1999, projected
SOURCE: Jupiter Communications