Electronic Commerce in Europe
by Roger Till
The April 1997 edition (ERCIM News No. 29) reported that "Europe has been lagging with respect to the rest of the world in its way towards the information society". As far as electronic commerce is concerned there is strong activity developing and a focus that is specifically European is certainly arising. This is happening on three fronts - firstly there is serious use of electronic commerce in many European countries, including France, The Netherlands, Sweden and the UK; secondly, these national activities are being brought together through a new user body, Electronic Commerce Europe (ECE); thirdly the European Commission is bringing together its various actions under a co-operative umbrella and calling for serious implementation initiatives under the latest ESPRIT Thematic Calls.
What is electronic commerce?
We need a working definition for electronic commerce. The Electronic Commerce Association of the UK (ECA) takes a very wide view of what is involved. Our short, simple definition is "doing business electronically - across the extended enterprise". In a fuller definition they try to recognise that electronic commerce includes many processes and many technologies, not just the Internet: "the conduct of business and the execution of business transactions using a combination of structured messages (EDI - electronic data interchange), unstructured message exchange (E.Mail), binary data exchange, shared data, databases and database access across the entire range of networking technologies and across both private and public sectors"
There are many excellent examples of the innovative use of electronic commerce in Europe and we give just a few examples from the UK, where use of Internet-based electronic commerce is enhancing their business and harnessing the potential of new ways of doing business.
Shoppers Universe, Great Universal Stores
GUS have a long tradition of adopting new technologies for their home shopping business. However before embarking on a World Wide Web based catalogue they researched the demographics of the typical Internet shopper and found it to be at odds with their normal customer, being mostly 30 something males with lifestyle interests and healthy credit cards! This information led to Shoppers Universe, the GUS catalogue site, containing a range of suitable items, and quickly accessible for busy people who won't wait around for large graphics to download. (http://shoppersuniverse.com)
TESCO's Internet Superstore
If you live within the postcodes that lie around TESCO's (a large UK supermarket chain) store in Osterley, West London you can order from this Internet site and for a £5 fee have your shopping delivered to your house. Signing on with your loyalty card you can set up a regular shopping list as well as selecting any other items. This experiment by TESCOs is extremely interesting because of the huge potential impact it could have on the whole supermarket environment, its logistics and its expensive real estate. (http://www.tesco.co.uk/superstore)
Scotlens, based in West Lothian, make high quality contact lenses. This site is targeted at their customers the opticians. It contains a mass of technical information about lenses and optical media and provides all the complex mathematical procedures for the optician to calculate the exact prescription of the lenses they need to produce a pair of contact lenses. Naturally, having enticed the optician to the site, Scotlens hopes they will then purchase the required lenses from them. (http://www.route-one.co.uk/route-one/scot-lens)
Electronic Commerce Europe (ECE)
At the beginning of the G7 Conference A global marketplace for SMEs in Bonn in April a new Europe-wide user body was formally launched. Called Electronic Commerce Europe it is an international association of a non-profit making nature (association sans but lucratif - an ASBL). ECE is an association of associations, but also with membership from commercial organisations, who are interested in sponsoring the development of electronic commerce at a European level. Its mission is to enhance European competitiveness through the development and implementation of electronic commerce, with the primary objective to create added value for companies in Europe, public bodies and end consumers. ECE will promote furtherance of all forms of electronic commerce and encourage and co-ordinate co-operation of member organisations.
Electronic Commerce Europe is just identifying the projects it hopes to work on. These are likely to include:
- developing a network of excellence
- SME trans border trading
- use of multimedia for electronic commerce
- security and legal aspects
- an information society activity centre
- the issues of multilinguality.
A focus in the European Commission
There have been many actions relating to electronic commerce in various DG's (eg DGIII ESPRIT, IDA; DGXIII - Telematics program; DGXV Public procurement). An inter-service agreement, referred to as the Luxembourg agreement of January 1997, has recognised the need for co-operation. In addition a recent Communication (COM'97 157 A European Initiative in Electronic Commerce) declares a political objective "to implement a coherent framework of technological, regulatory and support actions, as a matter of urgency, by the end of the year 2000" to promote a favourable business environment for electronic commerce to gain the maximum benefits for Europe.
This commitment is also seen in the current ESPRIT Thematic Call for Electronic Commerce (closing on 17th June 1997), which has a general objective to "improve business performance and promote innovation through RTD in electronic commerce applications, systems, tools and technologies" and exhorts us all to deliver best practice pilots.
What is ahead?
The future is exciting for all of us involved in electronic commerce as the interest in, and implications of, the Internet and the longer term impacts of the Information Society are being considered by all businesses. The use of the Internet for electronic commerce, especially for the business to business transactions, will grow rapidly over the next years. The integration of customer facing Internet front-ends with simplified EDI (electronic data interchange) back-office procedures (referred to as LITE-EDI) over a high quality Internet service will be on of the keys to successful electronic commerce.
Looking further ahead the ideas being considered as the basis of the Fifth Framework by the European Community Building a user-friendly information society recognise the importance of electronic commerce and its impact on new ways of working.
We may not be doing as much electronic commerce as they are in the USA, but the way that businesses over here in Europe are using it is equally inventive and competitive.
- Electronic Commerce and the European Union: http://www.ispo.cec.be/Ecommerce
- ESPRIT programme http://www.cordis.lu/esprit/home.html
- Electronic Commerce Europe http://www.ec-europe.de
Roger Till - Electronic Commerce Association
Tel: +44 171 432 2500