Belgian companies are missing the e-commerce train

Source: De Tijd (10 June 2016)
By: Frederik Debrabander (Senior Manager at Accenture) and Steve Muylle (Professor of Digital Strategy at Vlerick Business School)

Belgian companies are still too likely to wait until the government removes the barriers to e-commerce. High time they took part in the action themselves. After all, foreign competitors who get in first will end up taking the biggest slice of the pie.

Between January and March of this year, Belgians made 21.4 million purchases online, according to the latest figures released by the industry federation BeCommerce. It demonstrates yet again that we are fervent online shoppers. But if you take a closer look, it becomes apparent that 75% of these purchases are from foreign companies: Bol.com, Coolblue, Amazon or another foreign player. Belgians might not be the greatest chauvinists, but many people still feel uncomfortable about this. The delivery vans are waiting just across the border to deliver your product to your front door, so to speak. And the Belgian economy is missing out on all the income from your purchases.

B2B (business-to-business) companies in particular are really missing out on a big opportunity in Belgium. Although we have enough confidence to order our books or electronics online, the situation clearly changes when companies start knocking on a supplier’s door. What B2B companies often forget is that their potential clients are also just normal consumers out of hours. When placing an order in their company’s name, they have no other expectations than in their role as a consumer. But in this respect, Belgium is still a desert: all too often, B2B transactions in Belgium still follow the route of conventional purchase orders.

All the same, Belgium tends to score quite highly in the areas of connectivity, internet use and the integration of digital technologies. This was recently revealed by the official Digital Economy and Society Index published by the European Union. We are therefore clearly ready for e-commerce, so why isn’t it getting off the ground? Because legislative work is required first, say many entrepreneurs. People like Fernand Huts, CEO of Katoen Natie, are arguing in favour of such changes. And yes, of course the government should facilitate the logistics work and remove other barriers, but the companies also bear a responsibility themselves. They are not currently exercising this responsibility to a sufficient extent: every company has a role to play in the digitalisation of its part of the chain.

You often hear it from entrepreneurs who have been in Silicon Valley, where they become convinced that e-commerce and digitalisation are necessary if they want to avoid going bankrupt within five years. But what is the next concrete step? Things often grind to a halt at this point. It is a feasible step, however, as long as you keep to the golden rule: ‘Think big, start small, scale/fail fast.’ Think big. Start small. Stop quickly if something isn’t working and expand quickly if it is.

Webshop

How should this be applied in practice? By putting e-commerce in a broader perspective than simply opening a webshop. You can use digital technologies to examine the primary demand of your client’s consumers. A simple example is social media, which makes it easy to monitor client expectations. You can also use social media yourself to explain to consumers what your company supplies and which consumer products they are used in. For example, Solvay does this very effectively through its consumer-oriented sites that provide information about the body-heat regulating microfibers the company sells to clothing manufacturers.

Digital technology is also creating a new business model with customisable services. Smart sensors in a professional coffee machine, for example, would provide a wealth of data for which catering company owners would gladly pay. Or they might form the basis of an app which allows consumers to order their favourite coffee. The possibilities are infinite, but companies must have the courage to take the leap.

Is it in our nature to wait until foreign competitors start working with creative ideas? If they go first, they will also take the biggest slice of the pie. And when Belgian companies finally jump on the bandwagon, they will be nothing more than a small cog in the money machine of a major foreign player. High time for the Belgian companies in their sector to start claiming their share of the action.

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