Can Amazon Be Friendlier to European Users?

The online retailer does good business in Britain, France, and Germany, but local sites score higher on clarity and ease of use

By Tiffany Stecker (AMZN) may be the go-to site for online shopping in the U.S., but in Europe it's getting stiff competition from local e-tailers with a knack for user-friendliness.

A study of online shopping in Europe ranks Amazon in second place, behind local e-merchants in Britain and France, on criteria such as ease of online searching and clarity of customer service information. In Germany, the third country surveyed, Amazon ranked better than local e-merchants. (Amazon earned the No. 1 spot on BusinessWeek's customer service ranking this year. See our list of winners).

For the study, Paris-based market research group Yuseo asked 3,650 e-shoppers in the three countries to perform eight tasks on e-tailing sites in their countries. The projects ranged from searching for specific items—such as a pink iPod with a matching case—to finding instructions on the sites for reporting defective or damaged merchandise. The sites were ranked on participants' success in carrying out the assigned tasks.

Subpar on Returns

"Amazon is good when searching for a specific product" such as the iPod, says Rémy Rubio, Yuseo's president. But some local sites performed better than Amazon on searches for items, such as cordless phones, where brand names were not specified. Amazon's procedures for returning damaged goods also received subpar ratings.

To be sure, Amazon offers a broader range of merchandise than most of the other sites surveyed. British site Laskys, which ranked No. 1 there, sells only appliances and consumer electronics, while Amazon's British site offers everything from books and clothing to power tools. Laskys is part of Kesa Electricals (KESA.L), a British bricks-and-mortar retail group.

Still, the highest-rated site in the study, France's Cdiscount, appears to match or even exceed Amazon in breadth while beating it in user-friendliness. The Yuseo study found that 65% of French participants successfully completed their tasks on Cdiscount, vs. only 55% for Amazon's French site. Cdiscount is owned by Casino Guichard-Perrachon (CASP.PA), a French bricks-and-mortar retailer. Cdiscount also operates local-language sites in Britain, Belgium, and Germany, selling goods ranging from books and DVDs to furniture and even cars.

One bright spot for Amazon in the survey was in Germany, where it was far ahead of the second-ranked e-merchant, electronics retailer Redcoon. Yuseo says 61% of German participants successfully completed their tasks on Amazon's German site, vs. only 48% for Redcoon.

Ten Years in the Making

Amazon has had mixed success in Europe after moving into the region a decade ago. Its British site, which it purchased in 1998 from a local online bookseller, is now that country's second-biggest e-merchant, after eBay (EBAY), another U.S. transplant. But on the Continent it has been outpaced by local players such as France's FNAC, a unit of Paris-based retail and luxury group PPR (PRTP.PA), and Germany's Arcandor (AROG.DE), a retail and travel group.

Although Amazon is still growing in France, it is losing ground there to rivals such as Cdiscount. According to Internet data collector ComScore (SCOR), Cdiscount boosted sales 53% last year to overtake Amazon as the country's No. 4 e-tailer. Amazon's French sales grew 29% last year, ComScore says.

A spokeswoman for Amazon in France declined to comment on its competitive position. However, she said Amazon had recently taken several steps to make its European sites more user-friendly, including an upgrade of the search engine and the launch of a service in France that provides same-day delivery for some orders placed before 12:30 p.m.

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