Malcolm Harbour, MEP and EIF Governor, chaired the 10 July EIF dinner debate which centered on the topic of enhancing consumer satisfaction in online retailing.
First up was Pablo Arias MEP, Chairman of the IMCO Working Group and Rapporteur on the Report on Completing the Digital Single Market. He noted that with over five-hundred million consumers and about twenty-three million companies, the single market is one of the greatest European assets. A number of past efforts have focused on expanding the concepts of the single market into the digital domain but these have met with mixed success. Despite the vast growth potential many see, to date the development of Europe's ecommerce market has been suboptimal. Arias posed the question why this has been the case. He remarked that while seven years ago Europe was in a comfortable lead in GSM handset markets (most notably, in the case of Nokia) now Europe lags far behind international competitors. The reason, he suggested, is that Europe simply failed to pay sufficient attention to the possibilities the internet offers. Shifting focus to the topic of building the confidence of European consumers in ecommerce, Arias asserted that this is inevitable, in due time. He justified his confidence by outlining the historical development from the first direct consumer catalog sales (by the US firm Montgomery Ward in 1872) through to the commercial innovations of the 1970 (facilitated by the rapid proliferation of minicomputers and mainframes), and finally, up to the introduction of direct television marketing in the 1980s. Consumers always adapt, Arias argued, it just takes them time. The problem today is that we cannot afford to wait. The global competition is advancing rapidly and if Europe wants to remain a strong contender it must adapt. Towards the end of helping consumers who aren't digital natives to embrace ecommerce, Arias proposed the creation of a pan-European trust mark, which would be an umbrella brand. Such a scheme would need, he continued, to provide some legal certainty for consumers regarding their recourse in cases of dispute (perhaps in the form of a money-back guarantee) as well as feedback mechanisms, such as seller ratings.
Next up was Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC. She pointed out that a great many European consumers are already satisfied with their ecommerce experience. While there is much talk of expanding cross-border ecommerce within the EU, she cautioned against overdoing it. There isn't much that can be done at a policy level to address the significant linguistic barriers to cross-border ecommerce. Other impediments, such as territorial discrimination, market segmentation, and incompatible VAT schemes, might be addressable at an EU level. On the other hand, Goyens pointed out, cross-border ecommerce is not sustainable in many situations due to the environmental impact of transport. If consumers are satisfied with their local options or if vendors are happy with their local customer base they're liable to balk at going cross-border. The best way to expand European ecommerce, Goyens argued, is to put a business attitude in place: build smooth delivery systems, make sure that payment processes are secure, provide customers with a good support hotline and a no-headache return policy. Trust marks may help consumers to make better sense of the existing information overload, she conceded. Goyens argued that trust marks will only work if the standard is set quite high; if the mark symbolizes mere regulatory compliance (compulsory for all vendors, regardless of their participation in the scheme) they will be practically useless. In closing, Goyens urged policymakers to regulate product comparison websites. Many of these sites are useful tools for consumers, providing a neutral information source, but sometimes they are setup as a marketing ploy by unethical vendors for the purpose of deceiving consumers.
Sue Daley followed. She noted (in the interest of full disclosure) that while she would be speaking in her role as Chair of the EURIM Data Protection Working Group she is also the Symantec Government Affairs Manager (UK and Ireland). EURIM appreciates the vital importance of data protection for individuals but, she cautioned, the reforms must support the functioning of the market and not create destructive barriers for business. She enumerated the potential benefits EURIM sees in the proposed reforms: legal harmonization amongst the member states, the introduction of a lead DPA, changes in data breach notification requirements, and the notion of a one-stop shop collocated with a firm's main establishment. At the same time, EURIM has some major areas of concern, she continued. Daley stressed the need for further clarification of legal definitions. Explicit consent requirements are likely to have a major impact on businesses and she expressed EURIM's concerns about their feasibility. On the right to be forgotten, Daley underscored the need to frame the issue such that consumers can have realistic expectations. She mentioned EURIM's concerns about the potential impact these regulatory changes might have on SMEs. The right balance must be struck, she said, between protecting consumers and enabling businesses. In closing, she urged that the legal framework remain technologically neutral.
The last speaker of the evening was Jean-Marc Noël, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Trusted Shops GmbH. Noël introduced himself as a Frenchman living in Germany for the past twenty-three years. He founded Trusted Shops all the way back in 2000. The key message, Noël said, which he wanted to convey is the potential of a pan-European trust mark for expanding European consumers' confidence in ecommerce. There is, he noted, always the question of who trusts the trust mark. Noël shared some of the lessons Trusted Shops has learned over the years and what they've found to be a winning approach. His firm participated in the establishment of a trust mark monitoring board (a public-private partnership between participating firms and the German government). Over the years, Trusted Shops has also forged cooperative relationships with national and local consumer protection groups. Noël said that Trusted Shops has assembled a list of more than 100 criteria which participating firms are expected to comply with and Trusted Shops closely monitors consumer feedback on these firms. Noël observed that his firm, in collaboration with a number of trust marks from across Europe, had already begun working to establish a pan-European trust mark standard. This sort of effort, he asserted, is necessary in order to build consumer trust and thereby maximize growth of the European ecommerce market. In closing, Noël stressed the importance of a multi-stakeholder approach to the negotiation of trust mark criteria and reiterated the value of on-going dialog between trust marks and consumer protection agencies.See event