E-commerce in the EU has been increasing steadily but unevenly since 2006, while cross-border e-shopping remains well below its potential, according to a European Commission report published on Thursday (5 March).
The European e-commerce market was estimated to be worth some €106 billion in 2006 and the number of European citizens who bought at least one item online has increased from 27 to 33 percent between 2006 and 2008, according to the document.
"Internet use for retail shopping is destined to become pervasive. Already 150 million consumers shop online," said EU consumer rights commissioner Meglena Kuneva.
The study also showed big disparities among member states.
Danes (59%), Brits (57%) and Dutch (56%) were most keen to shop online. By contrast, citizens from the bloc's two newest member states – Bulgaria and Romania – were the most reluctant to do so (3% and 4%, respectively), followed by Lithuanians (6%), Greeks (9%) and Cypriots (9%).
Cross-border e-shopping has a patchier record, however.
The figure of those shopping online outside of their own country has remained stable at around 7 percent in 2008, with just one third of EU citizens saying they would consider buying a product abroad.
"Only 30 million [European consumers] shop online cross-border. We must see to it that adoption of the internet platform will not be unnecessarily slowed down by a failure to remove important regulatory barriers or to address important trust issues for consumers," Ms Kuneva said.
The commission cites geographical segmentation, language and regulatory barriers as the main obstacles to cross-border e-shopping.
"Most retailers still seem to operate on the assumption that the internal market is partitioned along national lines. The range of possibilities is enormous, yet in practice, consumers end up being refused sales or redirected back to their country of origin," it says.
Regulatory barriers "that appear increasingly unjustified to consumers and business," such as VAT rules, selective distribution law, or intellectual property protection, also hinder online shopping across borders.
According to the commission's report, smaller businesses "appear to have been particularly reluctant to embrace the opportunities of e-commerce to sell cross-border."
Some 60 percent of European online merchants have said they are prepared to sell in more than one language, while no more than a third of European consumers have said they would buy goods and services in another language.
Reacting to the commission's report, internet search engine Google said it offers a variety of free tools such as an online dictionary aimed to "help consumers and merchants" overcome notably the language barriers to cross-border online trade.