Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Consumer Scoreboard Part II: How integrated are European Retail Markets?

According to the Scoreboard, consumers are still somewhat hesitant in their attitude towards cross-border shopping. Around one third of European consumers has purchased cross-border in 2011, with a a slightly positive trend since the first survey (2006). Similarly, most sellers declared they do not trade with foreign customer- with only around one fourth of them having sold at distance in the course of last year. In this case, the trend has been less unidirectional, opening at almost 30% in 2006 and suffering fall-backs in the next years. 

The reluctance to shop & sell cross-border seems to be reflected in e-commerce, a context in which consumers still seem to favour national shopping over EU-wide options. As concerns internet purchases, two major features should be remarked: 

    From left to right, UK to Romania
  • first, familiarity with online shopping varies enormously from country to country, ranging from UK and Sweden's impressive 71% of e-consumers among respondents to Romania's  6%- this might suggest that technological gaps matter at least as much as confidence-building to this respect;
  • second, the preference for national providers- or rather, the lack of confidence in non-national ones- seems to be largely overcome when consumers go cross-border at least once: the reported experiences with foreign traders score no worse (rather, better) than national ones, which is reflected in the fact than consumers who tried a non-domestic purchase at least once are significantly more likely to to that in the future compared to those with no previous experience. 
Of course a major problem for consumers who want to engage in EU-wide shopping trips (which according to this study offer them a daunting 16x choice compared to national e-commerce) is that many online shops simply do not ship abroad or otherwise deter foreign customers. Might the CESL be an incentive for traders to open up to a more international clientele? Only time (and observation) will tell. 

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

7th Consumer Scoreboard

Today the European Commission published the results of the 7th Consumer Scoreboard, a monitoring tool addressing the position of the consumer on the European market. The tool is published twice a year: a spring edition on "consumer conditions", examining progress in the integration of the EU retail market from the consumers' perspective, and an autumn edition on "consumer markets", dealing with the different specific consumer markets in order to identify which of these markets may be malfunctioning. The consumer conditions scoreboard published today deals with issues such as quality of regulation, effectiveness of dispute resolution and consumers' trust in market actors, including enforcement authorities and consumer associations. The Consumer Conditions Index has slightly risen compared to previous years. This is partly caused by a higher complaint ratio and growing satisfaction about dispute resolution. At the same time, consumers are becoming more worried about unfair commercial practices and about product safety. For more information, including the index for each Member State, click here.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Small world (III) - Towards a European cloud computing strategy

On 21 and 22 June 2012, a Digital Agenda assembly will take place. The assembly will, among other topics, address cloud computing, in preparation of an EU-wide strategy for the supply and development of cloud services. An important aspect of the strategy is the legal framework for cloud computing:

'This concerns data protection and privacy, including the international dimension. It also concerns laws and other rules that have a bearing on the deployment of cloud computing in public and private organisations. And it concerns users' rights insofar as they are provided for by law.'

The programme for the cloud workshop can be found here.

As a reminder, another conference on (consumer) contract law in the EU is organised in Messina at the end of this week:

1-2 June, Messina, Italy

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The New Consumer Agenda

The European Commission today published "The New Consumer Agenda", which replaces the "Consumer Policy Strategy 2007-2013". The strategic vision presents four main objectives: 1. Reinforcing consumer safety: for goods, services and food, strengthening the regulatory framework and making market surveillance more efficient. 2. Enhancing knowledge: to cope with the increasing complexity of markets, where consumers need the right tools and information to understand everything from the real cost of consumer credit to finding the right place to complain. This is important for both consumers and traders, and the role of consumer organisations is key. 3. Improving enforcement and securing redress, without which rights cannot exist in practice. This is all the more relevant given that the detriment suffered by European consumers incurred from problems causing complaint is estimated at about 0.4 % of EU GDP.1 The role of consumer enforcement networks2 is central. 4. Aligning policy to societal change and making it relevant to daily life: to adapt consumer law to the digital age and tackle problems consumers face online; to factor in the needs of vulnerable consumers; to make sustainable choices easy It is interesting to see that problems in information processing (e.g. information overload) are identified as problems and thus as points of focus for improvement. The same counts for redress, where the Commission is looking into more effective administrative enforcement, but also at ADR and ODR and collective enforcement. Click here for the full strategy. There is also an accopanying document giving a report on consumer policy.

Kind of blue

Do you have an idea how much water you use every day, or what is the 'water footprint' of goods such as jeans, hamburgers or beer? Today, the European Commission launched a new video as part of its campaign on consumer awareness regarding sustainable consumption. Meet Walter, who can tell you all about it:

More information is available in the Commission's press release and on the campaign's Generation Awake website.

Monday, 21 May 2012

BEUC's 2020 vision

This month, BEUC, the European consumers' organisation, published its views on European consumer policy (available in English, French and German on BEUC's 50th anniversary website). The report is based on the input of 42 member organisations in 31 countries as well as a 'consumer strategy panel' composed of policymakers, academics and stakeholders.

BEUC argues in favour of a 'people-centred' consumer strategy that makes sure that 'consumers can really profit from the single market' and aims 'to achieve a more sustainable, inclusive and responsive economy'. For this reason, '[t]he ultimate goal of the strategy must be to improve consumer wellbeing through raising living standards while protecting the environment'. 

Problems reported include the space between rights on paper and their enforcement in reality; lack of official support for consumer policy and organisations; a 'confuseopoly' created by an information overload experienced by consumers; and problems with essential services, such as energy, food and financial services.

BEUC suggests making consumer policy an element of sustainable growth: 'We need to develop models of consumption that deliver more welfare to households without an obligatory increase in the current metrics of GDP and continued environmental damage, consumer indebtedness at home and subsistence labour abroad. These include models that use smart technologies (cloud computing); models that can reduce consumer vulnerability; and models of collective purchasing and collaborative consumption that reduce the need for producing more goods (car clubs, and refund schemes). These call for a new kind of smart, sustainable and inclusive consumer policy, with more focus on the use and service of products.'

Accordingly, BEUC's 2020 strategy puts forward the following objectives:
1. Consumers have straightforward, meaningful choices in fair and competitive markets and can exercise them
2. Consumers get access to and better value from all goods and services
3. Consumers benefit fully and safely from advances in technology 
4. Consumers have access to impartial information and advice, and acquire the knowledge to exercise their rights 
5. Consumers benefit from efficient enforcement and are given adequate tools to obtain redress
6. Consumers find sustainable choices to be the easy and affordable ones 
7. Consumers trust that EU policymaking fully takes account of their interests 
8. Consumers benefit from a strong and influential consumer movement at national and at EU level 

A side note: Interestingly, the document makes no mention of the pending proposal of the European Commission for a Regulation on a Common European Sales Law (CESL), which is meant to pursue some of the objectives that BEUC also puts forward. Then again, this seems to be in line with earlier criticism expressed on the CESL.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Brave new world

What would your great-grandmother have thought of you checking your mailbox thirty times a day, commenting on your friends' holiday photos from the other side of the world, or reading the news while talking or walking? Writing about the legal aspects of the use of digital content by consumers has certainly raised my curiosity and awareness of the way we use technology nowadays. While today's digital environment offers almost unlimited possibilities for socialising, working, learning and communicating, it seems that the consequences of the use of technology on daily life are still difficult to assess. 

An interesting view on the impact of the digital world on creativity, communication and learning of different generations can be found in Larry D. Rosen's book 'iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us'. He analyses the different ways that people from different generations make use of technology, looking into both its positive and negative influences on social relationships.

The following interview nicely summarises the main insights presented in the book (and gives some good reasons for, after watching it, going out to meet your friends for real life):

Do traffic lights help in preventing accidents?

... apparently not always.
Here we will not talk about traffic jam in our busy cities, but rather... sandwiches.
In the debate between mandatory regulation and "soft" approaches, one interesting case is that of "traffic light labelling", one of the available models to provide consumers information about the food they are considering to by straight from the packaging. At the moment, several of these models are used in practice, the most spread being the classic GDA label- which specifies the contribution of a certain amount of the product to the average (advised) daily intake of nutrients, salt and so forth.
According to a study by the British association which?, this cohabitation of styles makes it difficult for consumers to compare similar sandwiches from different store chains, which might opt for the one or the other label.
Traffic light labels are supposed to draw the consumer's attention to specific features, such as an high salt of saturated fat content,  by showing them in red area to make clear that, e.g., pizza is a "treat" rather then standard, every day food.  The usage of similar labels, according to the UK government, should be reviewed to achieve more transparency through consistent information provision.
Is more uniformity needed outside the UK as well?

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Health claims

Today the European Commission approved a list of 222 health claims - e.g. that calcium influences bone health - that may be used in advertising and on food labels, since they are based on sound scientific advice. Without such a list, producers and marketers could mislead consumers as to the benefits they may receive upon a purchase of certain products. The pre-approved health claims will be listed in the Union Register of nutrition and health claims made on foods (as required by Regulation 1924/2006) which is an interactive database. The marketers will have an easy access to it online, to verify whether they can make use of a certain claim in their advertising or not. The enforcement agencies across the EU will also use the same list. As a result of this harmonisation the consumers all over Europe will have an easier choice to make (and more informed). The transitional period for manufacturers to adapt their products to the new rules is 6 months. As of December 2012 all claims on food labels have to be either already included in the list or under consideration (to be included), otherwise their placement on the product is prohibited. (Food: Commission adopts landmark list of permitted health claims)