Belgian e-commerce slowly matures as online shopping increases
Last year, €11 billion was spent online by eight million consumers in Belgium, a figure slightly higher than the €10.6 billion spent in 2020 but under 2019's figure of €11.46 billion.
Belgians made more purchases online in 2021, but they bought fewer services such as plane tickets, hotel reservations or show tickets due to the restrictions associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
However, many of these billions were spent abroad and not on Belgian platforms. According to Comeos, the federation of trade and services, one in two non-food products that were bought online in Belgium were international purchases.
"This means that there are at least 15,000 jobs that have crossed the border, or have been created outside our borders,” said Comeos managing director, Dominique Michel.
“What we are asking the politicians is to make work in Belgium more flexible, so that we have the opportunity in Belgium to organise ourselves. We will never have working conditions like at Amazon and so much the better. We want to keep our Belgian social protection, but we also want to have the opportunity to fight against Amazon."
BeCommerce, the organisation that represents companies active in the Belgian digital market, publishes a top 100 of the best online stores active in Belgium every year. Of this 100, there are only about 40 Belgian sites; a figure that seems to correspond with Comeos' claims about online purchases from abroad.
It's not all doom and gloom though. "The sector is not yet mature at home, but not everything is going abroad,” said Sofie Geeroms, CEO of BeCommerce. “Every year we make progress, there are more and more Belgians in this top 100 online stores."
"There are several parameters to take into account,” she added. “A webshop like Veepee employs 600 people in Belgium even if it is based in France. Webshops sometimes have a repository in one country, digital marketing in another and software managed elsewhere. There is often an aspect that we manage from our country."
If the majority of the platforms that perform are abroad, there are still 46,000 webshops registered in Belgium. Another sign of the lack of "maturity" of the sector here is that 40% of these online stores have been created in the last five years. The vast majority of them are also small to medium-sized businesses: 75% are SMEs and among them, 90% are composed of a maximum of five to 10 people, according to BeCommerce.
For many entrepreneurs, e-commerce has been a lifesaver especially during the health crisis. Nathalie Ceter runs a children's shoe store in Ixelles. While physical sales suffered during lockdown, her webshop allowed her to keep her head above water. Today, it has grown and allowed her to hire two employees.
"Nowadays, having a physical store and another online is really complementary,” she said. “It is a win-win for turnover and for everyone. Both customers and merchants have more opportunities. There are even days when I sell more on the site than in the store and I am all the more delighted to have it in those moments." She added that those who go to the store sometimes also buy online, but that her site also makes it possible to attract new customers in store.
Not everyone necessarily shares this experience. In Uccle, Ariane Fonteyne also created an online site to complement her clothes and jewellery shop during the lockdown but can't manage the virtual store at the same time as the physical one.
Above all, she believes that e-commerce is harmful to the dynamism of city centres. "The more people buy on the internet, the less they come to the store," she said. “I have 60 to 80% fewer customers in my store. So, I think that promoting internet commerce is not a good thing for the future of cities. It's going to kill the heart of cities and businesses."
During the lockdown, a site equivalent to an online shopping mall featuring only Belgian webshops appeared. It features several hundred online shops that are based in Belgium, have a Belgian VAT number, pay their taxes here and have employees in Belgium.
Its co-founder Théodora Greindl, said that businesses have to move with the times: "To promote the Belgian merchant, you have to promote the Belgian e-merchant too,” he said. “We need to make people aware of the fact buying in store in Belgium or using a Belgian e-shop in Belgium will exclude the international actors who do us a lot of harm from an ecological, economic and social point of view."
The e-commerce market in Belgium is still young, but it potentially has a bright future ahead of it.