IORMA, Brussels, Belgium
in conversation with
Pandora Mather-Lees, Director IORMA
Aad Weening was a distance selling veteran long before digital emerged on our landscape. Having managed the Dutch Mail Order Association he was subsequently secretary general of the European Mail Order & Distance Selling Association representing the trade sector for almost 20 years.
All of these roles required a strong lobbying remit focusing on legal and economic consumer protection, consumer credit, international contract law, and postal services. Based in Brussels and speaking 6 languages, Aad is extremely well connected across the EU and beyond.
His special insight into global retail and e-business led Aad to start his own consultancy through which his clients rely on a deep and broad knowledge of many trade sectors, European institutions and other International bodies.
IORMA members benefit from the reports Aad has produced on global and regional e-commerce. His research into global trends is insightful and illustrates the international market opportunities for companies. This interview highlights some key aspects of Aad’s work and how it applies to the IORMA community.
PML: Aad you have had many years retail commerce experience in Europe, what is it that you offer companies who come to IORMA asking for guidance and consultancy?
AW: It’s basic information for companies looking to go abroad, helping them to understand the barriers and the opportunities. I generally start by developing a tailor-made proposal and bring in others who can offer specific research on specialist aspects as to how to approach a project. I don’t believe in complicated information many pages long – I like to give people the basics and the essentials on what is lying out there. When expanding abroad, retailers must understand the specificities of the country and its inhabitants. For instance as regards China, there is much information, but there is no blueprint for how to tackle that market. It depends on the type of opportunity you would like to pursue. I am well placed to draw upon my professional experience and my network of contacts around the world in various niche areas and with different expertise. And above all, at this stage in my life I am completely independent and I like to share my experience with IORMA. Yes, I do research, yes I collect data, but essentially to try and convey trends and insights on markets and consumers.
PML: You are Dutch having worked for many years and living in Belgium. You have travelled around and speak many languages. How does this inform your work?
AW: I look at things as an international citizen – not as a Dutch person – most people come at a problem from their own national perspective and compare this to how things operate in their own environment. This is ever more pertinent when you consider online. There is often a national angle in websites which are global in essence. However there is a difference when an international consumer faces let’s say a UK site, the national seller wants to sell to his own customers first and the global buyers that arrive are permitted to buy or not. If you decide to open up your activities to others, actively or passively that is different in legal terms and in your marketing approach.
PML: You are working now with a history of many trade associations behind you. How does this translate into an advantage?
AW: The advantage is that being completely independent I can interpret trends and what the customer wants from an objective standpoint.
PML: How can your position on the board benefit IORMA associates?
AW: By creating an international strategy for the companies IORMA is working for. Together we can inform companies about what they can achieve when they try to approach new markets.
PML: Potential exporters will be keen to understand the recurring pain points that most of your clients have encountered in previous years; what are these?
AW: With respect to cross-border shopping, consumers as well as companies experience essentially the same barriers: different languages, payment options, privacy issues and above all trust and confidence in buying abroad. Companies should know about consumer mentality and logistical, legal and payment options.
In Europe, the EU Commission (looking at the consumers’ side of the issue in first instance) is taking a keen interest in promoting the further extension of the Single Market in the digital era. Extending the Single Market in every way has been the EU’s raison d’etre since its formation over 50 years ago.
In the many years I worked in Europe and beyond, I learned from the companies I have worked with – both sellers and service providers – that for most countries, certainly in the case of very complicated markets such as China and Russia, the need for a reliable partner is key to accessing new markets. They need this in order to fully understand the differences not just in consumer mentality and language, but also for all the legal and technical regulations, not to mention duties and taxes like VAT. IORMA can be an intermediary for companies to bring them into contact with service providers able to assist with respect to these areas.
PML: What areas of consumer commerce are you interested in?
AW: More and more in first instance the overall picture of what is going on. I come from a traditional period and over the years I have seen how technical progress and innovations (the internet and recently smart phones and tablets) have had a huge influence on society and the way people work and shop. What fascinates me today is the road we are on now, which leads to total integration of channels and media. This implies a complete turnaround of thinking as to how merchants approach their customers in whatever sector they are operating. Consumers and companies are closer than ever before and we are just at the beginning. Progress is unstoppable and everybody should board the train. The development of online and how the different sectors approach this is crucial. Nobody can afford to stay behind. For instance luxury brands have been slow to adopt online strategies. They preferred their shops, but the customer wanted more means of engagement and shopping opportunities. Look at them (the companies) now and how they are transforming.
We need to ask ourselves, constantly, important questions, such as: where is the customer spending his weekly or monthly wages and how? Also, how will that evolve? What should I do to get him or her in my shop or on my website?
PML: You are physically and virtually immersed in the EU culture. What is happening in Brussels as regards legislation and compliance in the retail ecosystem?
AW: Although cross-border selling and shopping is increasing, only 25 – 30% of European retailers sell cross-border and only around 15 to 20% of consumers shop this way. More and more companies are opening up their websites to foreign customers or creating dedicated websites in the local language, offering a wide variety of delivery and payment options.
The European Union of today comprises 28 Member States, but that does not mean that the playing field is level throughout the Union. Language problems remain an important issue; 28 members and 23 different languages!
European legislation is still implemented differently in the various countries leaving a patchwork of provisions and regulations which makes life harder for our businesses. The European Union has identified that this issue needs addressing, but it takes time to smooth the path. Today experts estimate that over 75% of national legislation is directly influenced by EU directives.
The main issues are mostly ongoing – once a directive is in place, it comes up (after a couple of years) for review and update. There are specific product directives as well as issues of a more “general” nature, like privacy and data-protection which took on a whole new dimension with the internet. Others are postal services, payment services, contract law and so on.
European and national trade associations are monitoring activity in Brussels and Strasbourg in order to convey to politicians and EU officials the requirements and wishes of their respective industries. IORMA aims to stay in close contact with these associations.
PML: Where do you see the future of retail and consumer commerce going?
AW: The consumer is in the driver seat according to current sentiment, but I wonder whether that is entirely true. It is only true within the limitations of what a company can actually offer the consumer … not just in terms of the goods and services available, moreover the environment the merchant offers them. Often it is not possible or the price is too high. See what I said above – merchants are facing daily important questions about what their customers want from them.
Second, thanks to technical progress consumers have better communication opportunities and devices to use. And they use them, as exhibited by the huge penetration of social networks and sharing sites. Merchants should screen this activity closely in order to better understand consumers. Even if they have a fairly good idea as to what makes a consumer tick, they need to improve, continually, in order to stay ahead.
Third, the internet and online have given us the opportunity to look beyond the borders of our own countries. Not so long ago, just a few US and UK merchants had operations abroad and this is changing rapidly.
As I have said, the future is international and the global and regional marketplace is rapidly opening up. New territories offer huge opportunities for merchants. In Europe there is Scandinavia, France, the Netherlands and Germany, but Russia will inevitably be a huge attractive market, albeit hard to access. Outside Europe, the most obvious (for English speaking companies) are Canada, Australia as well as in Asia in first instance Japan, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and India. Countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam will follow these. Also, Brazil, Mexico, Chile and others in Latin America. Nevertheless we should not forget Africa and the Middle East with South Africa, Egypt, UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia amongst others.
PML: So where should an expanding vendor start then with the world seemingly as their oyster!?
AW: To start with, I would refer them to our report “The International Opportunity” which includes recent data and trends in retail and online and identifies mature and emerging regions and countries around the world. We aim to bring this report and the regional and country overviews up to date and to make a 2015 forecast. These sorts of reports should always be kept current and relevant. No company can build a reliable strategy based on outdated figures and the world is changing fast. Through IORMA we can guide and assist companies to set out an international strategy and execute it.