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Challenges and opportunities for e-commerce in Belgium

By Stephan Pire, Chief Sales Marketing Officer, Growth Bridge

Why would you sell online from Belgium?

The Belgian e-commerce sector is growing

In 2015, total global annual online sales for Belgium topped €7.3 billion. BeCommerce, a local e-commerce association, reviewed the sales figures for more than 720 e-shops (82% of the Belgian market for e-commerce) during the last month of 2015. From this survey, it appears that online marketers reached a turnover of €1 billion over the period November 27-December 31, which represents 14% of their annual turnover.

For consumers, 2015 saw the arrival of Chinese online mega-retailer Alibaba, which immediately ranked 10th in the BeShopping100 ranking (the top 100 Belgian webshops).

The case for selling from Belgium to European countries

Belgium is ideally situated in the center of Europe, with easy access to key markets. With its  multimodal logistics hubs, including three international airports, and close association with key logistics providers from UPS and DHL to FedEx, Belgium is a great choice for fast and effective shipment strategies.

Moreover, the local government is willing to transition as quickly as possible to the digital era, acknowledging that Belgium has been slow to catch the train. Strong incentives are being established to stimulate the growth of e-business. Regional Governments, for example, are offering incentives to local companies to invest in a website. Wallonia and Brussels grant subsidies up to €15,000 for businesses willing to add an online channel to their sales.eCommerce

The Federal Government is currently working on an investment scheme including a ‘startup’ tax rebate to stimulate capital investment. The size of the scheme is not yet official, but media sources have speculated that the government will be setting the rebate at about 35%. Also, “an e-commerce platform launched by Ministers Alexander De Croo, Kris Peeters, and Willy Borsus, has allowed night work and, therefore, the creation of 5,000 jobs in the next three years,” says Carine Moitier, spokesperson for BeCommerce.

Ranking of the most popular products online in Belgium

Cosmetics and the food and beverage industry were never as popular in terms of revenue generated (respectively +5.3% and +14% compared to 2014) as they were in 2015. They are positioned at first and second place in the top rankings. Fashion items and accessories meanwhile suffered from a 30% decline in turnover, according to the BeCommerce chart, and are positioned in third place. Home decor and multimedia were also less popular in 2015, with revenue decreasing by 6% and 20% respectively.

Summary of the top online shopping industries in Belgium:

  • cosmetics (33.3%)
  • food and beverage (26.7%)
  • fashion goods and accessories (26.7%)
  • decorative items (13.3%)
  • multimedia (13.3%)

This ranking is not representative of the worldwide chart, as it does not include electronics & gaming or baby products. Those two industries have excellent online profits, but they are not yet represented in Belgium.

The weaknesses of selling from Belgium

As opposed to the US, Belgium did not choose to start repatriating its industries. Importing manufactured goods from Asia has become sort of the norm when an online seller can’t find adequate sourcing locally.

It is also quite difficult to find local supply chain experts with proven experience in enterprise management software like JD Edwards and SAP. US companies running those kinds of projects regularly need to bring in British consultants.

The case for selling online to Belgian customers

Selling online to Belgian customers is a tough decision, even for a store located in Belgium. The market is fragmented between not less than four different languages (Dutch, French, German and English for expats). The main challenge of promoting your online store is getting regular and quality content translated into these languages. That’s why a Belgian manufacturer will usually choose to sell cross-border to the top three European countries: UK,  Germany and France.

The case for buying an existing online shop in Belgium

Purchasing an online shop in Belgium is a good start for a US company. Belgian-based websites can be found at a cheaper price than English, German and French ones. They offer a good kickstart, as they’re usually managing multiple languages, including English, and give any US company a quick way to sell to France, Netherlands and the UK. The usual first next step is to translate into German.

There are brokers in Belgium providing auction services for an e-commerce site or informational website. They have a variety of websites for sale to suit any acquisition requirement.

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