Dutch Consumers Slow to Buy on Web

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Despite deep Internet penetration in what many call Europe's Web capital, online electronic purchases among Dutch consumers are slow -- especially in the wireless arena, which is hot in other areas of Europe.

"Web shopping hasn't taken off here because our situation is so different from that in the U.S.," said Fred Sengers, editor in chief of Incentive, one of the leading DM magazines in the Netherlands. "This is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with a shop at every corner. We don't have to drive for an hour to find a specialty clothing shop. If you want to be an online success here, you must be cheap or have an exclusive product and great service."

Thus BOL, the Bertelsmann online bookshop, which has had a Dutch outlet for the past year, "is doing okay. But no more than that," he said.

Unlike in other European countries where wireless Internet use has taken off, the PC still dominates in the Netherlands.

Licenses were auctioned off in the Netherlands earlier this fall, with the government selling them for far lower prices than in Germany or the United Kingdom. With four companies bidding for four licenses, prices for consumers are likely to be lower.

"A lot of Dutch consumers are reluctant to buy [wireless application protocol], because they know that in a year or so something better than that will be on the market," Sengers said.

One result of the new technologies and the prosperity they have spawned is that one of the engines of the new prosperity, the call center industry, is sputtering.

The Netherlands was one of the first European countries to spot the job-creating potential of international call centers, and the government provided generous incentives to attract foreign companies.

The problem? Everybody has a job, and it is difficult to find enough people to staff workstations.

"What you're seeing is Dutch companies opening facilities in Belgium and Luxembourg," Sengers said.

Call center conversion to handle the Internet is perceived as a necessity, he said, "but only pioneers are doing anything about it. Others will follow eventually. Call centers are no longer expanding rapidly. The industry has reached its own limits because it has been so successful."

No restrictions exist on telemarketing yet because the industry has a good self-regulation system in place. But that is changing.

"You have a lot of cowboys active in [telemarketing], and consumer irritation is growing as a result," Sengers said. He cited a recent incident in which thousands of people received a short message service notice to "call me urgently." It turned out to be an expensive adult entertainment line.

The incident spurred incipient government interest in legislating restrictions on phone and other forms of direct marketing.

DMSA, the Dutch Direct Marketing Association, is working to develop self-regulating codes in place of legislation. If they work, Sengers said, public anger may dissipate. If they do not, he said, "the door is open for legislation."

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