Study: Europe Still Trails United States in E-Commerce

Key European markets continue to lag behind the United States in improving the Internet purchasing experience for consumers, according to consultancy Accenture, formerly Andersen Consulting.

European online retailers are roughly at the same level as U.S. counterparts in 1999, Accenture said in its third annual holiday online fulfillment survey.

Only 32 percent of European online retailers offer in-stock information on their sites, varying from 8 percent for Spain to 58 percent in France. By contrast, 72 percent of U.S. retailers did so this year.

On the flip side, it took longer to place online orders on U.S. retail sites this year — 13 minutes versus 10 minutes last year, the study said. It is not that Web sites were slow. But as online retailers expand their product offerings, it is taking consumers more time to find and navigate to the item they want.

Since they are less complex and hence easier to navigate, European sites allow faster placing of orders. The continental average is 11 minutes. France is fastest, at 7 minutes. Spain, at 14 minutes is slowest. Spanish sites are more security conscious, frequently requiring passport or bank information.

Back in the United States, some things have not changed year over year.

Orders continue to arrive at the same time — seven days. Costs for shipping packages, averaging an additional 15 percent of product costs, have stabilized, too. This has not changed despite the price increases for major courier companies since last year's study.

Freebies are down, though. The study found that only two sites in this year's study are offering free shipping. This is down from 14 online retailers last year.

Shipping is another area where European online retailers face unique challenges compared with their U.S. counterparts. Very often, national postal services are the only shipping option for consumers. Thus European online stores cannot guarantee delivery dates.

But relying on national post offices is also a virtue for European retailers. Shipping charges are 20 percent lower in Europe, averaging a little more than 11 percent of product value. Germany boasts the lowest shipping rates at 8 percent and Spain, again at the high end, double that.

Still, language and country barriers continue to hobble European e-commerce.

There are few Pan-European sites, and many serve only one market. Even sites like Amazon and Etam have country-specific pages in native languages. Attempts to force a country site to ship across borders even crashes sites on occasion, Accenture said.

For the U.S. part of the study, 18 executives from Accenture's supply chain practice attempted to place 530 orders at 85 Web sites over a seven-day period. Orders ranged from apparel to books and toys. Delivery destinations were Chicago, Atlanta or San Francisco.

The European study was conducted over the same period as the U.S. study. Twenty-five executives with native-language skills from Accenture's supply chain practice in Europe placed 392 orders on 81 retail sites.

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