in eCommerce, Publishing, T'interwebs

“€Tail – the ins and outs of Europe” [Editorial comment from the May issue of Internet Retailing Magazine]

A combination of carbon awareness, recessionary trends and a non-existent expenses budget have kept our Editor in Chief’s focus firmly on Europe this month – just a well, since the rest of the world’s focusing upon Europe too…

The European bloc is the third most attractive global market – after the US and China – and, despite the differences in culture, language and infrastructure, this agglomeration of consumers is at least held together by the twin factors of relative affluence and a consistent legal system – the pre-requisites for trade.

The UK is well-positioned to be at the heart of international moves into Europe: the relatively well-advanced broadband and computing infrastructure, the credit card penetration levels, the enjoyment of shopping (online and off) and the ready acceptance of brand imports from across the pond makes the UK a natural ‘beach-head’ for US aspirations in Europe (or “rest of world” as our cousins so often term it).

The well-developed markets in France and German also hold attractions but outside the big three markets – each with its own idiosyncrasies – any hope of an homogeneous, easily-addressable marketplace evaporates.

Leaving aside language and culture (which of course one can’t) the plain sailing of the ecommerce front-end so often comes to grief on the jagged rocks of logistics and distribution. While it’s easy to present an ecommerce front-end to any market (indeed, we often scour the websites of US-only retailers and ponder the costs of delivery and import duty) it’s a totally different matter to get the goods to the customers. Legacy national carrier networks, cross-border delivery issues, the siting of warehousing, management of credit cards and returns… Ah – all of the problems of real ecommerce, but with a combinatorial level of complexity. Software alone cannot solve this, nor can marketing. Hence we see GSI’s European team investing in local logistics companies and partnerships, and the growth of ‘end to end’ commerce offerings that can provide a complete ‘click to doorstep’ service in-country.

What is the cause of this sudden interest? At a high level there’s a combination of a search for new growth outside the US and UK, a feeling that the technology allows a foray into Europe, and the growth of the indigenous etail markets growing to a critical, attractive mass.

Within this there are five main categories of activity (based unscientifically on my conversations last month):

  1. existing master of the large-scale play who look to extend their efficient supply chain and volume retailing to other territories
  2. niche or specialist etailers for whom a global market might exist and who now look to replace lost domestic volumes
  3. Global manufacturer, facing demand for their products in many territories, and juggling global marketing/brand ownership with a variable quality of local distributorships
  4. a domestic power-house looking for “near-shore” opportunities to support growth.
  5. companies who form the local part of a global group coming under pressure to operate in a unified, global fashion.

We will be tracking these developments with interest in these pages in the coming months.

The challenge of Europe is not just one of plugs, pipes and trucks: there’s a ‘selling’ challenge too. While it’s trite to note that customer behaviour may differ in regions and markets, what can we learn from this? Furthermore how can etail professionals move beyond obvious promotional mechanisms and enhance profitability? These questions will be occupying Europe’s leading multichannel retailers in Amsterdam this month for the inaugural European eCommerce Forum (ECF).

ecf-logo-smallThe Forum is an invite-only, expert peer group for etailers with €70million+ in etail sales, and will provide a confidential space for discussion, experimentation, benchmarking and networking. A joint initiative of Internet Retailing and Joris Beckers (CEO of FredHopper), we aspire to improve in-country selling capabilities as well as a broader European view.

ACSEL logoA fortnight later our colleagues at ACSEL, the French association for eCommerce, will be launching their book – “Europe – an Opportunity for eCommerce ” by Jean-Christophe Defline – at a conference in Paris where I’ll be expanding on the European view from the ECF and the UK perspective on eCommerce.

Most etailers will not welcome further complexity when the focus is upon the likely consumer downturn in the UK, so “Europe” may appear an untimely distraction. However, this syzygy of interest in Europe highlights topics of interest to us all: improved brand and customer communications; dealing flexibly with multiple partners and carriers; learning responsiveness to smaller, niche markets and, of course, driving for growth in a tough economic climate.

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