Online sales double despite legal loopholes: EU study

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Online shopping has doubled in the richer northwestern areas of the EU even though consumers are left wondering how they can get their money back from a retailer in another country.

Though there are few laws on shopping online, the number of EU consumers buying on the Internet doubled to 40% in 2010 from 20% in 2005.

The spike in e-commerce, which was documented in a study published by the European Parliament, was mainly limited to wealthier countries in the north and west of the EU.

This division is also due to levels of Internet penetration. Web access among EU households has almost doubled over the past five years, reaching 70% in 2010, according to the latest Eurostat data. 

The Netherlands posted the highest access rate (at 91%) while in Bulgaria, only 33% of households are online.

Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, the UK, Germany and Luxembourg saw the biggest jumps in online shopping, while Bulgaria, Romania and Greece are still on the bottom rungs of e-commerce.

Online shopping is still very much geared towards the consumer's domestic market. Only 23% of Web purchases in 2010 were from a retailer in a different country to the shopper.

Interestingly, the study makes the case for changing the word 'consumer' to 'prosumer', as people increasingly buy online products and produce online content simultaneously. A good example of this is eBay, where users upload information about products they are selling.

Though this is good news for business, the rise of platforms such as eBay poses tricky legal questions as there are currently no laws on returning products for consumers-to-consumer sales.

E-commerce is still marred by legal uncertainty as consumers have no idea which legal code applies when they buy across borders. There is indeed no clear answer to this question and the laws of either jurisdiction could apply.

If a consumer is worried about a privacy breach, then the EU's Data Protection Directive has some say over how this should be redressed, but many countries are yet to fully implemented these rules.

There is also some indication that men are more avid online shoppers. In 2010, 46% of men aged 25-64 made at least one online purchase compared with 41% of women in the same age group.

That difference is more pronounced on mobile phones, as twice the amount of men make purchases from their phones than women.

Although e-commerce in Europe doubles every three years, sales remain primarily at national level due to low consumer trust in cross-border purchases.

The European Commission and the European Parliament are carrying out legislative reviews of the EU's e-Commerce Directive to address shortfalls (see EURACTIV LinksDossier).

An EU survey in late 2009 on the consumption and sale of online goods across borders also concluded that Europeans are turned off by onlineshopping, mainly as a result of payment difficulties and a lack of trust in online consumption (EURACTIV 23/10/09).

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