Prospects for a single European online retailing market are growing this week after a pledge to tear down barriers to internet shopping across borders.
From train tickets to computers, consumers in Europe are prevented from buying the cheapest goods because products are often priced distinctly in different countries. A UK consumer could find a brand cheaper on a French, Dutch or Italian website, but be prevented from buying it because they live outside those national jurisdictions.
This week, eBay announced it would lobby the European Parliament to reform laws that restrict cross-border trading. This comes after moves to introduce greater competition into online retailing in the European Union and free it from national trade barriers were unveiled last week by EU commissioner for consumer affairs Meglena Kuneva.
In a speech in London, she said a patchwork of different rules was preventing a single market for online retail. She promised to revise European laws to help create an internal market on the Net. “We are not obliged to shop in the supermarket and stores of our postal code. Yet we cannot buy computers, train tickets or PlayStations freely across the EU,” she says.
Kuneva has declared war on brand owners who sell products online at different prices in different markets after receiving complaints from Members of the European Parliament about companies including Amazon, Nintendo and Eurostar.
MEP Sarah Ludford referred a complaint to Kuneva from a constituent in the UK who was unable to buy a Nintendo game player from an Amazon website based overseas. Another MEP said a constituent complained that Eurostar charges different prices for identical journeys depending on where the ticket is bought. But a spokesman for the train company says/ “We have the same fare structure in the UK and France. If there are differences the reasons are because of the exchange rate difference.”
Meanwhile, independent watchdog the European Consumer Organisation says differential cross-border pricing and availability are widespread and are a serious block on the creation of a single EU market for online retailing.
ECO legal officer Emily Barrau claims that she has been prevented from buying a train ticket from Madrid to Barcelona by the Spanish rail operator’s website as it would not accept her French credit card and that French retailer Fnac prevented her shopping online while she was in Belgium. She adds that British fans of Portuguese Fado music would have to fly to Portugal to buy selections on iTunes which are not available in the UK.
“A lot of retailers don’t want to sell in other countries and they restrict what buyers can get. Maybe they think it would be too risky or don’t want to bother. That is a huge barrier to achieving an internal market for the consumer,” she says.
Matthew Hardcastle, managing director of comparison site Shopping.com, welcomes moves to stamp out cross-border restrictions on internet retailing. “It is good news for the consumer and we think that most retailers will welcome legislation too if it gives them equal access to a bigger market.”
It seems only a matter of time before the internet creates a level playing field across borders where the power shifts to the consumer.