Sat, Dec 11, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Online shopping goes mainstream in Europe

Web shopping is set to hit new records in Europe this Christmas, led by a new kind of Internet-savvy consumer that uses "social networks" and price-comparison programs to get the best deal possible

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

E-commerce analysts are predicting a bumper Christmas for net shopping. This year, for the first time, seasonal revenues in the EU are predicted to exceed those in the US. Forrester Research anticipates that festive shopping online in western Europe will bring in 13 billion euros, compared with 10 billion euros in the US -- a 44 percent increase over last year.

The UK still leads in Europe, with 32.4 percent of the overall market. And according to a UK-based survey by the Interactive Media in Retail Group (www.imrg.org), Brits will spend ?4 billion online this Christmas. But larger economies (Germany and France) are catching up and are expected to outpace Britain in the next five years. That's a sign the e-commerce sector is maturing, something borne out by Forrester's predictions that clothing will be the second most popular online Christmas purchase this year -- just behind travel. The conventional wisdom used to be that people would never buy clothes online. Now, with many catalogue retailers online, clothing is expected to account for 17 percent of total online sales across Europe over the holiday season -- outpacing things such as groceries and alcohol.

Just as the market is growing up, so net shoppers are becoming smarter. Five years ago, when people first began to buy online in significant numbers, smart shopping meant knowing how to negotiate an online check-out. The past two years, however, have seen the rise of a new sort of consumer. Just as retailers now use multichannel sales strategies (online, the high street and more), individual shoppers now use

everything the net has to offer -- including shopping sites, individual sellers, reviews from consumers and price comparison tools -- to get the best deal.

More than ever, there are bargains to be had. UK Online Centers, a government initiative aimed at getting more people to log on, estimate that Christmas shoppers could cut a third off their bill by using the web. Those relying on the high street risk missing out on "a potential ?6 billion of savings over the festive season."

These rather vague figures are aimed at people still unconvinced by the net. In contrast, smart shoppers know about online savings -- but they are just as likely to take the prices they get online to the high street and haggle for an even better price.

"Two years ago, the empowered consumer was just an idea. Now it is real," says Hellen Omwando, European consumer markets analyst at Forrester. "The net gives them access to information they didn't have before, about product availability, choice and, more importantly, pricing."

In the future, shoppers will probably rely on tools such

as Froogle, Google's price

comparison tool. They can also

turn to sites such as Kelkoo (www.kelkoo.co.uk), the shopping search and price comparison

site, and UK Shopping.com (www.uk.shopping.com), which launched here last summer. The latter features the price comparison service DealTime, along with product ratings and information written by individual buyers from Epinions, the US consumer review site.

"Many of the first price comparison services didn't really work," says Ehud Furman, managing director

in Europe for Shopping.com. "But we think DealTime is now delivering value for both retailers and consumers."

DealTime searches more than 1,000 sites and aims to provide around 35 to 45 offers for every product search.

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