Shifting Patterns on French Internet Use

Year-end studies regarding Internet usage by the French revealed significant changes in offerings as well as consumer and business demands as Europe's second-largest economy completes the transition from the Minitel to the Internet.

France went online faster than other European countries when it introduced the Minitel in the 1980s, originally as a telephone book and later as a buying vehicle. But it sat on its lead too long and had to play catch-up with the Internet.

Customers now will not stand for poor back-end service. One study found that 20 percent of buyers returned purchased articles, the majority of them women. More than 40 percent of consumers surveyed are dissatisfied with the procedural difficulties involved in returning goods.

French consumers also are not pleased about having to pay for returns, a plus for clicks-and-mortar firms since the French prefer to return products ordered online to the retail store.

Online banking is moving ahead slowly. Half of those on the Web use it to communicate with their banks, but only 24 percent transfer money or conduct other banking operations on it. Only 6 percent purchase financial services online. But 24 percent told Ipsos, a leading French survey firm, that they planned to do so.

The Nasdaq slide scared many French investors away from the Web. However, more than half get financial information on the Internet.

Part of the problem is the paucity of French venture capitalists familiar with the Internet. Erkki Liikanen, the European commissioner in charge of the information society, said France had enough risk capital but too few managers who could launch a project and finish it.

Perhaps most significant is a clear trend toward more online business-to-business. Annie Rigoureau, editor of the DM newsletter Catalogue's, recently cited chapter and verse: CD&Co, an online and offline marketer of multimedia, is launching a BTB print catalog and a BTB site with a different focus from its consumer site;, a gastronomic marketer, launched a site for corporate gifts; and Conrad Electronics launched a BTB catalog.

Wine and Co, an Internet wine shop that does 75 percent of its business in metro Paris, now sells almost as much to businesses as it does to private consumers and expects a 50-50 ratio before year's end.

The BTB trend has not, of course, stopped the rush of established and new companies to the Internet. Carrefour, a global retailer with 9,000 stores in 27 countries across Europe, Asia and Latin America, recently opened a beauty and drugstore site. The site features 5,000 products as well as advice and counsel on how to use them. It also plans to launch sites this year on culture, travel, multimedia and financial services.

Fnac, a subsidiary of the PPR Group, has 57 stores in France as well as outlets in Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Taiwan and Brazil. Its sales ares in the $3 billion range, and a Web site launched in 1997.

Fnac stuck a .com after its name a year ago and expanded the site into what CEO Jean-Christophe Hermann called “a world-class site” built with Microsoft help. It now delivers 100,000 items within 24 hours at no extra charge. is a weekly shopping catalog put together by editors of three French Elle magazine titles. It covers fashion, home decor and cooking. Table Rond opened a gourmet site in November selling products from its three print catalogs.

However, not all new sites are for-profit.

Edition Ivoire, which specializes in promoting charitable catalogs, opened a site — — that features 200 items put up for sale by seven associations dedicated to fighting hunger and preserving wildlife.

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