The late ’00’s and the early ’10’s of this century saw an eCommerce boom, first across the US, then across Europe and Asia. In our little corner of Western Europe, we saw the entrepreneurial Dutch start up eCommerce initiatives such as Coolblue and bol.com, which have turned into resounding successes. We saw the arrival of Amazon in France, in Germany and more recently in the Netherlands … everywhere but in Belgium.
There were no successful eCommerce initiatives launched in Belgium, and where our merchants were present online, and few of them were, they were present on Dutch or French platforms, as retailer linked to bol.com or Amazon.fr.
For one reason or another, eCommerce presence was and is not top of mind for Belgian retailers. Is it another manifestation of the saying that Belgians prefer to stay under their own church tower, which differentiates us from our Dutch friends? Is it because we as Belgians are used to looking at the ground to see where we are going that we have no time nor room to look up and dream big? It’s difficult to say, but a lack of interest in the broader market available via the internet auto-limited the sales channels of our Belgian merchants. And we lost, because Belgian consumers took to the internet with enthusiasm.
Once we realised that we were exporting more than 8 billion EUR per year in Belgian purchasing power to online retailers outside Belgium – whether they had a .be address is irrelevant, because anyone can obtain a .be address – the federations raised the alarm. That came too late. Belgian retailers had missed the eCommerce train.
What surprises and annoys me is that that was then, and this appears to be then all over again. We don’t appear to have learned anything, or we do not understand it is happening again.
And yet it is. The COVID-19 sanitary crisis has created a situation in which non-essential stores, among which our Main Street retail stores, had to shut their doors. Visitors, and thus potential clients were no longer allowed in the stores. I agree the store owners needed to be financially supported for that hardship, but the focus was mainly on that and not on the unique opportunity we had to recover the ground lost in the first eCommerce battle, as described above. That battle was lost because we didn’t show up in the first place. Are we going to make that same mistake again?
Yes, the COVID-19 crisis is a pandemic disaster the likes of which we have never seen or experienced. But every downside has an upside, or at least a potential upside which is currently being underexploited.
This is an excellent opportunity for government to assist retailers in moving to the internet and establishing an eCommerce presence. What do I see as the elements that should be provided?
Establishing virtual store fronts: Government should take measures to ensure our merchants all have access to a virtual eCommerce store front to offer their goods or services to the Belgian consumer. There are a number of ways we could approach this. The government could tender the development of one Belgian storefront, with equal basic access for all merchants, and the possibility, depending on needs and means, to purchase a broader presence on that store front. An alternative would be to support existing initiatives, although Belgian storefronts have not done that well in the past. A third, more liberal initiative would be to provide merchants with a virtual credit to be spend on online presence development, for example via instruments such as the Flemish KMO portfolio. This could have the additional beneficial effect of creating a lever of activation for the development talent we have present in our Belgian suburbs, such as Molenbeek, and may lead to activation of a group of people with limited access to the job market.
Connecting to good logistical and financial back-ends: we have good online payment systems, we have voucher systems which limit spending to the Belgian territory, but we need to make sure these systems are integrated with or can be integrated with those virtual store fronts. The government can both legislate and support the integration of these systems. The essential building blocks exist, but they need to be linked up to each other.
Supporting distribution in Belgium: bPost is an essential player in the timely distribution of merchant wares within Belgium. The infamous Black Friday announcement, where the organisation announced they would not be capable of delivering all packages before the holidays, undermined the credibility of one of the most physically distributed organisations in Belgium. Government, a majority owner of the organisation, could help refocus the priorities of the organisation to ensure there is adequate capacity to support our local merchants.
It is not too late for Belgium to get on this eCommerce train, but we need to act now. I hope eCommerce activation will be part of the Relance program which will be presented by Minister for Relance Thomas Dermine in the coming weeks, but ideally this is one of the low hanging fruits that will be plucked and bitten in by the Government. Yes, we need investment in infrastructure in Belgium. We need to realise that eCommerce infrastructure, although virtual, is infrastructure as well.
The Belgian merchants need this.