Online shopping, where do I begin?

In view of the rapid grow of E-commerce in the EU and the Commission’s plans to complete a connected Digital Single Market (DSM) for Europe, it was imperative to identify the existing barriers to the proper functioning of the DSM and to cross-border e-commerce in particular.

This is why the European Commission conducted two surveys of online consumers as support and evidence base to a wider study, with the aim to identify the main cross border obstacles to the DSM and where they matter most. Both surveys covered three broad market categories: tangible goods and offline services ordered online (e.g. clothing, travel services), online services (e.g. social networks, communications services) and digital content (e.g. e-books, films and TV series).

The Core survey was conducted online in all EU28 Members States, including Norway and Iceland, using consumer panels in all 30 countries. The Clickstream survey was conducted in Belgium and Poland with online respondents who reported their intention to make an online purchase during a 2-3 week period. Respondents allowed their online activity to be tracked by a special add-on designed to record online browsing activity (websites, time spent etc.). The raw clickstream data collected was supplemented by consumer insights obtained via weekly diary surveys which collected additional data on respondents’ actual online purchases.  

Key findings:

Frequency of e-commerce and cross-border transactions (last 12 months)

  • At EU28 level, 95% of all online survey respondents purchased tangible goods and offline services at least once in the last 12 months. The most commonly purchased goods were clothing, shoes and accessories (76%). 
  • The proportion of online consumers who purchased tangible goods and offline services domestically ranged from 61-75% across 12 types of markets (54-73% accessed 8 different types of digital content), with cross border purchases within the EU accounting for 14-22% (12-17% for access to digital content) of online consumers. A significant proportion of respondents who accessed digital content (22-35%) did not know the origin of their online seller/provider.      
  • Online shoppers make cross-border purchases without always realizing it – 40% of those making their latest online purchase from another EU country assumed the purchase to be from a domestic seller.
  • Cross border online activity is more popular in some smaller EU countries with language and cultural links to larger markets. Young age and higher international exposure (knowledge of foreign languages and traveling abroad) are positively correlated with making online cross-border purchases.

Types of purchases and online spending

  • The total market value of the B2C segment of the DSM Market is estimated at ~ €231 billion. Tangible goods and offline services are estimated to represent 92% of this total value, with digital content and paid online services accounting for only 6% and 2% respectively. The intra-EU cross-border component represents around 14% of the total value (and cross-border purchases from outside the EU around 6%).  
  • The average online consumer who purchased tangible goods and offline services in the last year reported spending €760. Much lower figures for online services (€94/year) and digital content (€107/year) were reported amongst those who made such purchases (different base sizes). The difference between domestic and cross-border spending was less pronounced for digital content products than with tangible goods/offline services.
  • EU13 consumers spend relatively more (than EU15) on online purchases from other EU countries.
  • Online consumers spent on average €100 on their latest online purchase which tended to be a tangible good/offline service (93%). The most commonly purchased product was clothing, shoes and accessories (21%), followed by electronics and computer hardware (13%).  

Consumer attitudes and behaviour regarding online purchases

  • The average time online shoppers spent in total on their most recent online purchase was 3.1 hours.
  • Visiting online market places, e.g. Amazon, eBay (42%), visiting seller or service provider websites (41%) and searching via a general search engine (38%) were the three most preferred means of researching an online purchase.  
  • The choice for a specific seller is mostly determined by price (45%) and previous experience (44%). 84% of online shoppers used a website for their latest online purchase, with 13% purchasing via an app and 3% via an Appstore.
  • Respondents from EU13 countries (47% vs 12% for EU15) are much more likely to pay cash on delivery. The most commonly used devices for making online purchases were a laptop (80%), followed by a desktop PC (73%) and a smartphone (59%).
  • Concerning knowledge of consumer rights when buying online, only 9% of EU28 online consumers identified correctly the latest stage when they have the right to withdraw from a purchase of a digital content and get their money back.

Perceived and actual barriers with online (cross-border) purchases

  • Data protection and payment security (30% of online consumers were concerned that personal data may be misused and 25% that payment card details may be stolen) and consumer rights (fear of receiving wrong or damaged products -26%, difficulty in replacing or repairing a faulty product -22% and difficulty in returning a product they did not like and get reimbursement -22%) are key concerns in domestic e-commerce.
  • Concerns about cross-border e-commerce are linked primarily to delivery (delivery costs - 27%, high return shipping costs - 24% and long delivery times - 23%), followed by redress (the difficulty of solving problems if something goes wrong - 23%) and consumer rights (getting a faulty product replaced or repaired - 20%,  returning a product consumers did not like and getting reimbursed - 20%)
  • 31% of all EU28 online shoppers experienced at least one problem when making or trying to make an online purchase in the past year; problems were more prevalent in the EU13. Cross-border purchases, both within the EU and from outside the EU, accounted for a disproportionately high amount of problems.
  • Consumers continue to face problems with cross-border online transactions linked to their country of residence (e.g. refusal to sell, redirection to the foreign seller’s website in the country of the consumer, being charged more by foreign seller, not being able to access the service etc.).
  • When crossing an EU border, consumers are frequently prevented from accessing streaming content which they accessed for free or via a payment in their home country. Out of those respondents who streamed films and TV series or live events (e.g. sports matches) in the last 12 months and tried to access these streaming services of their own country while being abroad, 43% and 51% respectively reported not being able to access the content when abroad.

16% of respondents did not take any action to resolve their most recently experienced problem. Approximately two thirds of respondents who took action were satisfied with the way their complaint was handled. The highest satisfaction was with out-of-court dispute resolution entities (68%), whilst the lowest with court (54%).