European retailers cautious about selling cross-border

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While e-commerce accounts for 58 percent of Europe's gross domestic product, more than two thirds of retailers there sell exclusively in a domestic market.

According to the European Commission's Eurobarometer survey on business attitudes towards cross-border sales, the 29 percent who do sell cross-border trade only with one or two other member states. These findings were released earlier this month in conjunction with a major plan to overhaul EU consumer protection rules in an effort to increase confidence in online shopping and boost cross-border sales. The study also found that more businesses want to sell cross-border, and 48 percent of EU retailers are prepared to do so.

"The results of this Eurobarometer reinforce my view that [small and mid-size businesses] are interested in entering the retail internal market but the lack of a clear and coherent set of rules is one of the main factors holding them back," said Meglena Kuneva, the new EU Commissioner for Consumer Affairs, in a statement. "This would not only drive prosperity for companies but also give consumers the confidence they need to make the most of the internal market."

The proposed changes, which are contained in a European Commission Green Paper, address e-commerce, telesales, mail order shopping, doorstep selling, international sales and the travel industry. The aim is to harmonize rules across the 27-nation European Union while giving consumers more cross-border shopping rights.

The study, released in conjunction with the review, found that the main obstacle to cross-border trade is the insecurity of transactions, which 61 percent of retailers were concerned about. Other potential problems include different tax regulations (58 percent), resolving complaints (57 percent), difficulties in ensuring after-sales service (55 percent) and delivery costs (51 percent).

More than 6,600 managers of companies with at least 10 employees were surveyed.

The findings match a 2006 Eurobarometer of consumer attitudes on cross-border shopping. The 2006 survey showed that while 27 percent of citizens had bought a product or service online in the previous year, only 6 percent made an online cross-border purchase.

The EC also said it receives hundreds of complaints about online cross-border shopping each year about problems such as non-delivery, late delivery, cooling-off periods, returning goods and getting refunds.

The consultation on the "Green Paper on the Review of the Consumer Acquis" will last three months. During this time the consumer commissioner will take the consultation on the road and meet with a wide range of stakeholders. Proposals for specific initiatives to remedy existing problems and shortcomings will then be brought forward.

"There is an urgent need for action; the world is moving so fast and Europe risks lagging behind," Ms. Kuneva said. "We need a root-and-branch review of consumer rules. At the moment, consumers are not getting a fair deal online, and complex rules are holding back the next generation of bright business ideas." n

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