June 6, 2012, 8:58 AM

Europeans offer U.S. e-retailers tips for selling across borders

When moving into Europe, U.S. companies need to consider culture and regulations.

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E-retailers in the U.S. considering jumping across the pond into Europe should be mindful of country-specific consumer laws, payment systems and customs, according to speakers and press statements at a global e-commerce summit in Barcelona this week.

For example, the French don’t want to have to struggle with any other languages while shopping, Marc Lolivier, director of French e-commerce association Fevad, told attendees. “Language is a key—a web site in a foreign language or badly translated into French has little chance of breaking through,” he said.

Yet it is often French and Dutch businesses that think they can succeed in Belgium simply by launching a .be web shop, rather than fully targeting their sites to the country’s Flemish, French and international communities, according to Carine Moitier, co-founder of custom-shirt e-retailer Bivolino.com, 

 “If you are not 100% sure of being able to deliver the right native language, do not do it,” she told attendees. “Online payment offerings also need to be adapted to your target group, and the universal must in Belgium, is to offer Bancontact.” The Bancontact system allows shoppers to pay for online purchases by debiting from their bank accounts. They click on the Bancontact logo, provide their card information and then verify their identity with their home bank via a pop-up screen. 

German online shoppers, on the other hand are conservative, said Henning Heesen, country manager of Salesupply Germany, a global outsourcing company which offers online business support services. Retailers operating there should focus on building trust with consumers first, Heesen said.

“You should adapt your online shop to a German look and feel, offer preferred payment methods, clear terms and conditions and provide German-speaking customer service,” he said.

He adds that Germany has rigorous consumer privacy laws and labeling regulations for products—Including textile and food—that retailers should investigate prior to entering the German market.

Consumer rights laws are also strict in Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, other speakers pointed out.

“The word ombudsman was invented in Norway,” said Gerhard Anthun, secretary general of the Norwegian direct sellers association, Distsansehandel. “Never try to fool the consumer ombudsman.” An ombudsman is an appointed official who represents consumers’ interests.

Henrik Theil, communications manager for the Danish e-commerce association, FDIH agreed. “The Danish consumer ombudsman vigorously supervises e-commerce regulations and issues guidelines on things like price information, covert advertising and environmental marketing claims,” he said. “Don’t expect to run the same direct e-mail marketing campaign in Denmark as in other EU countries.”

Experts said although the rules may be tough to adhere to—particularly for foreign companies—information about exactly how retailers can comply is provided for free by the ombudsman. Speakers added that oftentimes fines for breaking the rules are costly.

The easiest way to ensure that a web site conforms to the legislation is to pay for the independently assessed Danish “e-market” trust mark certification, Theil said.

When it comes to the Danish preference for online payments, cards rule. 85% of all online purchases in Denmark are paid for by card, Theil said. “If you set up a Danish-language web site, shoppers will expect to be able to pay with the national Dankort card, which accounts for 70% of all e-commerce transactions.” The Dankort card is the most popular Danish card, he said. Danish consumers opt mostly for payment cards such as MasterCard or Visa, and the Dankort card is often co-branded with Visa, Theil said.

Danish also place great emphasis on customer service, he also notes, adding that Danish customers frequently use chat, e-mail and telephone to get assistance.  

In the Netherlands, the Dutch Consumer Authority and media closely monitor e-commerce sites, says Wijnand Jongen, director of the Dutch e-commerce trade association, Thuiswinkel.org. He cautions retailers not to make claims they cannot back up.

“Don’t display trust mark logos if you have not officially applied them, and don’t underestimate social media—stories about bad customer service spread quickly,” he said.

As for paying online, 60% of all web-based purchases in the Netherlands are made with the banking system iDeal, according to Jongen, which allows consumers to pay through their own bank, compared with only to 10-12% by credit and debit cards

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