The E-Commerce Fairy Tale

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Once upon a time, not so long ago, a Walloon party chairperson wished for there to be an e-commerce revolution in Belgium, much like the nuclear one that had gone before. In 2022, politicians making such remarks may have a clear political agenda for doing so. However, both economically and socially, this idea is incompatible with said political agenda. Let us explain.

E-commerce is, of course, quite a broad concept. While we all know of the likes of Amazon and Bol.com, we also have online pharmacies, meal delivery services and well-known brands such as Torfs or Veritas. Recent figures from Safeshops.be (the association of Belgian e-commerce businesses) are very enlightening. In 2021, Belgian online sales accounted for €11 billion, an yearly increase of 33%, with the number of Belgian online stores rising by 17.5% to 56,642. Of these, almost 1,500 had turnovers of over €10 million. To illustrate the steep growth of e-commerce, since 2008, the volume of sales in the sector has increased by 220%, while that of the retail sector as a whole has increased by only 15.6%. According to the Federation of Enterprises in Belgium (FEB), this is an indication of explosive market growth for online sales in our country. It is an emerging economic sector that is not to be underestimated, and one that will undoubtedly continue to show aggressive growth in the future.

But while the demand for e-commerce is certainly there, the issue lies with the Belgian supply of such services. Most of our online purchases are still made with foreign e-commerce players. Is that a problem? For the local economy and employment levels, the answer is yes. According to calculations by the FEB, every year our country loses out on €1 billion in turnover and 6,000 jobs. Such figures are hard to ignore. The competitive advantage of foreign e-commerce players lies in the statute on ‘night work’. As consumers, we all want to be able to place an order online and have it delivered either the very same day or the following day at the latest. This is only possible through night work. In most of our neighbouring countries, night work hours run between midnight and 5 am. In Belgium, these hours are from 8 pm to 6 am, rendering the entire logistical process much more expensive owing to the surcharges applied to night work, which can range from 25% to 40%. To that end, employers are advocating for altering the night work statute to fall in line with our foreign counterparts, thereby eliminating any competitive disadvantage.

Trade unions and some political parties, however, see things differently. Night work is regarded as detrimental to workers’ health, the ‘betonstop’ (ban on concrete) is making it difficult for big e-commerce players to procure the large amount of storage space they require, and finding suitable personnel is already proving quite a challenge even outside of the e-commerce sector. As a result, politicians’ and workers’ agendas are at serious odds with that of employers. While Belgium is known for its political diversity, it is even more renowned for the so-called ‘Belgian compromise’. Could this end up playing a role in this debate? Night work is particularly suited to low-skilled workers, night hours could already be decreased at least halfway towards the foreign average, and consumer demand is only set to increase. With the population becoming increasingly ‘tech-savvy’, it is having no trouble adjusting to the world of e-commerce.

Unfortunately, the fairy tale ends here for now. In a democracy, the electorate decides. As long as they leave room for one side or the other, the e-commerce dilemma in our country shall remain unsolved, leaving us only to look upon our neighbouring countries that have succeeded in this debate with envy. As for the trade unions and workers, they will live happily ever after…

Kris Poté, Vice President, Capgemini, 1 June 2022.

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