Progress in the development of the digital economy and society was studied by Eurostat which presented the European figures in the Digital economy & society report documenting the achievements recorded in 2016. The report indicates that Europe has been making significant progress in digitization of commerce, but the development is very uneven.
In some countries, certain categories of services have already definitely become the domain of e-commerce – one of the examples is the sale of holiday trips in Luxembourg. However, there are many countries – particularly in Eastern and Southern Europe (e.g. Italy), where the development of online trade is delayed.
In the majority of European countries consumers are better prepared for trading on the internet than producers. One of the most serious barriers is the shortage of ICT professionals able to help enterprises in their conversion into true e-companies.
The infrastructure is available
In the development of the digital economy growth of infrastructure is of key importance. Access to the internet, whether fixed or via mobile devices, has already become a standard in the European Union. In 2016, it was available to 85 per cent of EU inhabitants, as compared to 70 per cent in 2010. The rest simply do not want to have it, failing to perceive sufficient benefits for themselves. Exclusion from the internet today is a matter of lack of education and ability to adapt to life in the digital world rather than of technical capacity.
One of the significant benefits offered by the internet is the possibility to shop online. As much as 66 per cent of EU inhabitants who have access to the internet use e-commerce. In 2007, it was only 50 per cent. Shopping online is a part of everyday life, particularly in the United Kingdom (this possibility is used by 87 per cent of inhabitants with access to the internet), Denmark (84 per cent) and Germany (82 per cent). At the same time, age differences among e-shoppers are not significant. Both younger and older people are equally convinced about online shopping.
Go shopping to the computer and telephone
Bigger differences may be observed in e-consumer profiles in individual countries. They may arise from habits – in some countries, certain categories of goods and services are more frequently bought via the internet, whereas others should still be searched for “in the real world”. For example, during the last year clothing and sports equipment (occupying the first place in European e-shopping) were bought online by as much as 78 per cent of Bulgarian inhabitants with access to the internet and exactly half as many (39 per cent) Italians. This may confirm the popularity of online shopping in Bulgaria, but may just as well result from easier access to “bricks-and-mortar” sports shops in Italy as compared to Bulgaria. For comparison, such articles were bought online by 63 per cent of Poles with access to the internet, the EU average being 61 per cent.
Purchases associated with travel and holiday are the second in the preferences of European e-consumers. This purchase channel is used by 52 per cent of EU inhabitants. In terms of e-travel, the inhabitants of Luxembourg are the most advanced, with 76 per cent of them using their own computer or phone to buy tickets, accommodation and holiday packages. The inhabitants of Poland do it the least frequently. Only 20 per cent of Poles use e-commerce in this area. It seems that they still prefer their local travel agent at the travel agency desk in this case.
For purchases of furniture and household appliances, the internet is used, on average, by 44 per cent of EU inhabitants with access to the internet. This form of commerce is most convincing to the British (64 per cent), whereas Poles are close to the European average in this area (39 per cent). In online purchases of tickets for cultural or sports events, the European average is 38 per cent. Poles clearly lag behind the EU average (only 18 per cent). Leaders in this area are Swedes (58 per cent) and Norwegians (61 per cent), who are not in the EU, but are quoted for comparison.
Compared to the EU average, Poland also ranks low in online purchases of books and magazines (which is unfortunately also true in the real world). Only every fourth Pole (25 per cent) buys something to read online, whereas the EU average reaches the level of 35 per cent. The inhabitants of Luxembourg are the leaders. We also fall below the average in purchases of electronic equipment. On the other hand, use of the internet for food purchases is at the level of the EU average.
Not only to view but also to sell
Online shopping is, on the one hand, a matter of consumers’ habits and, on the other hand, a matter of technical capacities of e-sales. Results of the Eurostat survey indicate that EU consumers are digitally more advanced than producers and suppliers. The starting point for online trade is the development of the relevant infrastructure. E-commerce is not possible in practice unless access to broadband, fixed or mobile internet, is provided, which is defined by the European Union as a throughput equal to or higher than 144 kbps. According to this definition, one can accept that almost all companies in the EU (95 per cent) already have such access. As late as in 2010 this share amounted to a mere 28 per cent. The share of enterprises with access to mobile broadband internet is lower (69 per cent), but it is rapidly increasing. In this case, Poland does not deviate from the EU average (also 69 per cent).
The sheer presence of good infrastructure is not sufficient for the development of e-commerce. Producers and suppliers themselves must be convinced of this channel of presentation and sales. A presence on the internet, including possession of one’s own website is regarded today as an obligation in running a business. However, in practice the situation in Europe varies. Possession of a website is a rule in the case of the Nordic countries (Finland and Denmark) but statistics indicate that besides the aforementioned countries, the internet is the bread and butter of big companies only.
The role of the internet, including the online sales channel, is confirmed by the share of companies providing e-commerce in individual countries of the EU. On average, one out of five companies in the EU (20 per cent) sells online. In this respect, Ireland leads the way (30 per cent of companies run e-commerce business), followed by Denmark (29 per cent), Germany and Sweden (28 per cent each). Unfortunately, Poland ranks low (only 12 per cent), but the situation is even worse in Italy (11 per cent) and Latvia (10 per cent). Some consolation for Poland is the statistics of e-commerce turnover (14 per cent). Ireland and the Czech Republic also rank better in terms of turnover than in the number of companies selling online, whereas Germany ranks surprisingly low (many suppliers, low turnover).
It will not work without professionals
As the Eurostat report shows, faster growth is inhibited mainly by the shortage of professionals able to prepare companies for the digital revolution and build new online sales channels for them to keep pace with the expectations of European consumers, which are growing faster in this area. The problem relates mainly to specialists in information and communication technologies (ICT), i.e. in short, ICT technicians.
Across the European Union, their employment has increased by 33 per cent over the recent decade, currently reaching 8.2 million people (3.7 per cent of all employees), but the needs are still not satisfied. This is confirmed, among others, by the fact that 90 per cent of EU employees with an ICT background do not need to worry about work.
On the other hand, companies which still fail to employ them should be concerned about acquiring ICT technicians. Among the EU countries, the highest number of companies using ICT technicians’ work is recorded in Ireland (35 per cent) and, which may be slightly surprising, in Greece (30 per cent). They are followed by Belgium, Hungary and Malta (26 per cent each). The EU average is 20 per cent. Unfortunately, Poland ranks low in this area (only 12 per cent); in the European Union, only Romania (11 per cent) is behind Poland, which may confirm the fact that many Polish entrepreneurs still do not recognize the capacity of the internet, which offers companies the possibility of faster development.
The relationship between the level of ICT technicians’ employment and the development of e-sales, at least as far as Poland is concerned, is quite clear. However, e-commerce is not only about issues related to the employment of professionals who will be able to organize online sales, but mainly about the understanding by entrepreneurs of the weight of new methods of contacting potential purchasers. One of those methods is the presence of companies in social media for the purpose of more personal communication of their offer, leading to creating higher demand.
Unfortunately, the knowledge and capacities of Polish entrepreneurs (appropriate professionals also have to be employed for this purpose) lag behind the EU average. Across the EU, social media are used by 46 per cent of companies with access to the internet. Leaders in this area include Malta (74 per cent), Cyprus and Ireland (67 per cent each). Unfortunately, Poland has the worst result in the EU (only 27 per cent of enterprises).