Despite lockdown, Flemish retailers unconvinced by online selling


Shops that went online to survive lockdown are still not taking e-commerce seriously, an Antwerp University study has found

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Lockdown has forced many Flemish shops to start selling online, but few of them see a future in e-commerce, according to a study from Antwerp University. Instead, local retailers consider web shops a temporary measure to get them through the crisis.

“They don’t seem to take their online stores very seriously,” said Joris Beckers, who carried out the research with colleague Ann Verhetsel in the Department of Transport and Regional Economics. “That’s a pity, because there will be more online shopping once the corona crisis is over.”

According to the university’s survey, around 50% of retailers who did not already have an online shop opened one during the first lockdown. On average, this allowed them to keep 20% of their turnover.

“In combination with support from the government, that was enough for many traders to keep afloat,” Beckers explained.

It helped that the public started shopping online in much larger numbers, both for food and other items. And many people chose to shop locally, rather than turning to big international platforms such as Coolblue, and Amazon.

Yet many Flemish shops that went online during lockdown appear to have made it up as they went along. For example, only a quarter of those surveyed got professional help when setting up their web shops.

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Many also neglected the business implications of selling online. For example, only 60% made a charge to cover delivery costs. And more than half of respondents offered to deliver goods to customers themselves, even if they were 10km or more away.

Finally, 70% said they did not see their web store as an important sales channel in the future. “For most local stores, web sales seem more like a temporary survival strategy than a sustainable transition to innovative retailing.”

As a result, most of these businesses are not well prepared for successive lockdowns, and will remain dependent on government support. Meanwhile, the public has moved on. The researchers expect the online shopping habits learned in lockdown to continue once the corona crisis has passed.

“If local stores close their web shops, people will just switch to the Bol.coms of this world,” Beckers said. “The number of physical shoppers on our high streets will then decrease, and a lot of Belgian money will flow online to foreign companies.”

Photo: Shops closed in Brussels’ Nieuwstraat
© Belga/Thierry Roge