Europe vows to liberate online shopping
Brussels -- It's the bane of online shoppers' lives -- searches dangling coveted brand-name gadgets, gear or gifts cheaper on websites from another country but not being able to buy them.
Help may, however, be at hand, if European Commission proposals to boost "borderless" online shopping across its 27 member states are not watered down by governments jealously guarding individual tax takes.
Brussels on Thursday said online shopping was its battering ram for a "re-launch" of the European Union’s single market, urging national leaders fretting over debts, treaties and global warming to make it a "top priority."
From almost 11,000 orders for everything from music to clothes, three out of every five attempts at buying products from websites in other EU countries failed.
"The trader did not ship the product to their country or did not offer adequate means for cross border payment," commission results said.
"At some point during the ordering process, websites will terminate the transaction," it underlined.
Belgium, Bulgaria, Latvia and Romania were the worst offenders in terms of denying access to cross-border online wares.
Two thirds of all products sought — everything from books to washing machines — were not even available online from retailers in the Belgian home of the EU.
"They could be found, but not necessarily purchased," said consumer affairs commissioner Meglena Kuneva.
Other online retail black spots were Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta and Portugal.
Only Austria and Spain had success rates above 50 percent.
Potential savings for consumers across the board, after delivery costs, were pegged at 10 percent based on real offers elsewhere.
Insisting better deals should be "just a click of a mouse away," Kuneva warned that "Europe’s consumers are being denied better choice and value for money."
She said they "deserve better" than "27 inefficient mini-markets" and insisted language barriers need not be an issue.
The commission underlined that "no actual purchases were made," for fear of a backlash over taxpayers’ money filling researchers’ wardrobes.
Viviane Reding, the EU’s Commissioner for Information Society and Media, said a borderless online market for everything from books to video games could see retail revenues "quadruple."
Creative content currently turns over more than 650 billion euros (975 billion dollars) each year, according to commission figures, accounting for 2.6 percent of the EU’s economic weight and employing three percent of its workforce.
"Achieving a digital single market is a top priority for Europe… top of the list of all policy initiatives to re-launch the single market project," Reding stressed.
Brussels estimates the European e-commerce market was worth 106 billion euros in 2006 — but market watchers say it will be a third as big again this year and triple in size within five years.
Britain, Germany and France currently account for some 70 percent of Europe’s online sales.
However, only one in five traders sell across borders.
Proposed changes include an updated consumer rights charter and more Internet sweeps, "to stamp out illegal practices and boost consumer confidence in cross-border shopping" amid fears over an explosion in counterfeit goods and concerns over the storage of personal data.
Countries should also agree simplified cross-border rules for retailers on value-added tax, recycling fees for electronic goods and copyright levies.
An existing requirement for dealers to have "a brick and mortar shop" could finally be removed.
However, the commission warned that "progress on all is required before the potential of cross-border e-commerce can be unlocked."