Amazon Targets 160 Million French Speakers

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PARIS -- Amazon launched its third European site in France last month to target the global French-speaking market, which the company estimates at 160 million people -- 60 million in France and the rest spread around the world. was built from the ground up and started with four "stores" -- books, CDs, DVDs and videos. In the UK and Germany, Amazon acquired existing e-tailers and "amazonafied" them, as spokeswoman Margaret Dawson put it.

"What I hear from the French management is that in terms of the level of orders, we are well on the way to holding a leadership position," she said.

According to a Media Metrix survey published last December, was the most visited shopping site in Europe, followed by and "We are confident we will take the same leadership in France," Dawson said.

It will be interesting, she said, "to see how the number ranking in the top 10 will play out after the site has been up for a year or so." She conceded that Amazon faced strong competitors in France but declined to discuss them.

France has a thriving online market for books. Alibabook belongs to Fnac Direct, a subsidiary of the powerful PPR group. France Telecom owns Alapage, and BOL is a joint venture between Bertelsmann and Havas, a major French media company.

"We focus on what customers are saying and to do it better and differently in order to improve customer experience on the French market," Dawson said. "The fact that we already had customers here gave us a clear advantage."

So did brand awareness and media attention. "There was so much speculation about the launch that we got intensive media coverage for weeks and months beforehand, and because of that the launch itself was widely covered," she said.

Amazon spent about a year preparing for the launch, with the French staff doing due diligence to make sure all the requirements of the French market were being met.

"Our biggest challenge is the relationship with publishers, suppliers and partners in order to provide the content that is needed for the local culture. It helped to know what French customers were asking for," Dawson said.

"We customized the operation for them so that we would be sure of coming in and doing it right. It's easy to open a site and sell things, but building something from the beginning tailored to French markets, language and content is something else."

Nevertheless, Dawson said, the time needed for new launches is shortening, largely because so much of the technology used in setting up one country site can be transferred to another.

She declined to speculate where Amazon might go next, but she noted that the three European markets where Amazon is now doing business account for 65 percent of disposable e-commerce income in Europe.

"PC penetration and the number of people online [are not] as important as that," she said.

Smaller markets with both high e-commerce income and high penetration -- such as Scandinavia and the Benelux countries, which are Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg -- are not high on Amazon's list because, Dawson said, "Scandinavia is already a strong market for us."

In March, the company opened a customer service center in the Hague covering more than 100,000 square feet, with 150 representatives who speak French, German and English to handle inquiries.

Distribution centers were sited in provincial towns where the company got more space for less rent. The French warehouse is in Orleans, southeast of Paris. In the UK it is located in Marston Gate and in Germany in Bad Hersfeld.

Books are shipped via Deutsche Post, the British Post Office and La Poste in France.

The site has 400,000 French books in stock with 700,000 English-language titles available, making the largest English bookstore in the country. The music shop offers all French and foreign CDs distributed in France and 225,000 US and British CD titles.

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