There is a reason why Belgium is considered to be the centre of Europe. The country is home to more than 1,000 international organisations, private and public, and its transport network is both dense and interconnected. Its central geographical and political location holds great opportunities for exports and its workforce is one of the most productive in Europe. Belgium is also renowned to be the best consumer test market for the region. If you can convince Belgian to stop eating crêpes and chips to try your products, there’s a high chance you will successfully make your entry into the European market at large.
Belgium is a trading nation. Consumption growth slowed down in the past few years, due mostly to higher inflation, but its versatile population still holds a high purchasing power. With 80% of its national GDP depending on exports, Belgium has all the incentive to stay a prosperous, open, and highly competitive market. Thanks to its unique tax system, foreign investors can also benefit from a lot of deductions.
In this Getting to Global guide, we will guide you through the process of reaching Belgium’s consumers, successfully making sales on ecommerce channels, and getting your products to reach the desired consumers.
It’s relatively hard a merchant operating in Belgium to conquer the hearts of all its inhabitants, as the country is deeply divided into two parts: Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.
The need to tailor offerings according to local laws, culture, and in two languages (French and Dutch), combined with a small population, make Belgium a somewhat more difficult market for those entering the EU for the first time. Additional resources and careful planning are required to make a foray into Belgium a succesful one.
The key category is fashion with the majority of growth through to 2020 expected here. The solid growth prospects across the other categories are also interesting, particularly with furniture & appliances expected to challenge electronics for size over the same period. Data compiled by Statista.com highlights that the clothing category is responsible for around 50% of total online sales in Belgium. The online top 20 retailers also show an interesting mix of international brands with very few domestic retailers present. This does highlight the international nature of online in Belgium, also a reflection of the offline spending habits of Belgians where going to a neighbouring country is just as natural as purchasing domestically.
As a rule, shops are generally open Monday to Saturday, with many inner-city shops preferring a 10am opening. They are exceptionally open on certain Sundays allowed by law, for example the two Sundays before Christmas and New Year, although you will see several independent shops open most Sundays, as well as some supermarkets (typically in the morning only), bakeries and restaurants. In Belgium, promotional discounts are only allowed in January and July, so shops need to shift unsold stock fast – which means knockout shopping discounts during these two months. Dates are strictly government controlled.
Belgian internet users are avid consumers of digital media and this is reflected in the growth of digital advertising spend. IAB Belgium have reported that digital advertising in the market topped €400m in 2015, up 14.5% on the previous year. Favoured digital advertising channels include display, accounting for 36.2% of expenditure, search at 28.3%, video at 18.1%, social at 15.7% and email at 1.8%. Email spend is probably low, not because of a lack of popularity but because of the way that the service is provided.
Gaining importance as a mechanism for increasing relevancy and cost effectiveness of advertising, programmatic trading, where algorithms running on service provider’s servers and allocate advertising placement in real-time, is accounting for a bigger proportion of digital budget. Up 30% on 2014 expenditure, €187m is now spent via the technology (30% of total display spend). Mobile related display advertising increased by 51% in 2015, accounting for 35% of total display advertising spend, highlighting the increasing importance of mobile devices in the customer journey.
The same study also highlighted the role of content in the discovery phase, with around a quarter of consumers suggesting that it made a contribution to the discovery phase of the purchase cycle. With single figures suggesting that it influenced the buying decision, merchants would be advised to tailor their content strategy depending on where about in the customer journey the information is being displayed; relevancy is key. Belgians are more likely to view comments in-store, really highlighting the role of mobile in multichannel retail. Website content is an important element of the transactional process and international merchants should assess how their existing formats will fit in with these requirements. Data also suggests that consumer reviews should be a major part of the cross-border offering, enabling local consumers to assess any international merchant, not by what they say, but what their existing customers have to add.
As in most western markets, Google dominates the search landscape of both the Netherlands and Belgium, with only Bing and Yahoo! exchanging places. Vinden and StartPagina are worthy of note. Whilst not technically search engines, they are important local players in that they can drive relevant traffic through paid-for links.
Mobile technology is used widely, with mobile phone penetration in well over 90%. Smartphones are also gaining traction at 60% in Belgium. Tablet usage is increasing, meaning mobile strategy will be an important element for any merchant trading into the region. Around 12% of Belgian e-retail is carried out via a mobile device. However, desktop remains the most popular route to the internet in Belgium so this shouldn’t be ignored either. In Belgium, desktop is also the main method of going online whilst smartphone usage is further behind than in the Netherlands. Tablets are available to just over a third of Belgian internet users so represents potential for brand interactions.
Whilst Android Tablets have a lower share of the overall market, they do convert quite well, certainly compared to iPads. As with other territories, an overall strategy encompassing both desktop and mobile is worth pursuing in these markets. Additionally, when looking at mobile optimisation and marketing focus, it is important to take both Android and Apple’s mobile operating systems into account. If resource needs to be targeted, the iPad audience should probably get the early focus for development.
87% of marketers see social media as part of their overall strategy although there is also a recognition that the quality of the content is more important than the quantity. A core component of any brand’s marketing communications strategy, social media usage is gaining traction in the Belgian market, both from a consumer and brand point of view. Social media interaction is very strong in both markets, with around 79% of internet users in both countries having a Facebook account. Google+ has 28% of users internet users having an account in Belgium. YouTube has high levels of usage, really reinforcing the importance of video based advertising spend that was reported by IAB Netherlands. Looking more closely at Facebook engagement, ecommerce in general has high levels of engagement with a combined 14.9 million followers. General retail also fares well with around 10 million fans, according to socialbakers.com
In terms of social engagement, it does appear to be very one-sided in Belgium. With an average 300,000 follower per brand in the top 20, they each only post 42 times per month on Facebook. The ratio on Twitter however is much closer, with fans posting over 26,000 times and brands responding 126 times. It would appear that there is potential for brands trading into these markets to increase the levels of engagement. Although, Insites Consulting has reported that consumers don’t necessarily want a lot of engagement, particularly around commercial activities such as discounts; although this reluctance is easing as consumers get more comfortable with the social channel. Aside from the marketing opportunity, studies3 have shown that 70% of those social media users contacting customer services expect a response within 15 minutes. 66% of these expect responses through the same channel as well; highlighting the need for close monitoring of the social engagement, especially in Belgium where there is still a lot of suspicion about brands communicating on social media.
In common with other markets, the use of email as a marketing tool is far from dead. Mobile engagement is reinvigorating this trusted marketing channel. The Dutch and Belgian markets show healthy levels of email engagement with National Email Benchmark reporting Confirmed Open Rates (COR) of over 35%, Click Through Rates (CTR) of 7% and Click To Open (CTO) rates of 17.4%. Irrespective of workday or weekend, desktop still dominates actions driven through email e.g. ‘clicked on’. However, open rates are evenly split by device over the weekend, whilst desktop accounts for 60% of email opening; perhaps mobile is used on the way to work during the morning commute as a way of prioritising follow-up activity. This would appear to be reflected in open rates via mobile, depending on the time of day. Breakfast, lunch and early evening seem to be the time where engagement is highest.
The peaks are much less defined over the weekend, perhaps when time constraints are less rigid. These data points highlight the importance that mobile devices have in the customer journey, particularly during the discovery phase. They also reinforce the role that email has in the marketing mix in the Belgian market whilst suggesting that frequency, timing and content should be tailored depending on the desired outcome. International merchants will notice that these trends are common to many other markets so existing platforms are likely to be able to cope with these local requirements.
The Belgian consumer market still has strong DM activity. Industry data compiled by Post NL and Spring Global Delivery Solutions suggests that 87% of physical DM is opened and read. With reading rates on the same day at 85%, DM can be an e cient mechanism for both acquisition and driving website traffic. Highlighting the impact that DM has on digital enabled sales in these markets, 67% of online searches are trigged by the mail piece. Online advertising, in conjunction with physical DM, leads to a 25% increase in response rates. As a brand development vehicle, DM obviously has its place in its ability to present a ‘physical form’ to the consumer which has benefits when trying to develop a presence in-country. As an activity to drive sales, DM has the potential to reinforce online messaging or to introduce new ideas. This will have benefits in helping to upsell and cross sell, drive brand loyalty and develop cost efficient traffic to an online presence. Where possible, unique URLs and offer codes should be used so as to be able to track the benefit and take the customer directly to the products or offers mentioned in the DM. DM combined with digital marketing has a role in consumer communications for some brands.
In Western Europe, Belgium was relatively late with embracing ecommerce. As a result, a lot of tech savvy consumers went (and still are) shopping online abroad, especially at Dutch online shops. This also led to several big online merchants from the Netherlands opening .be-webshops that are focused on attracting Belgian consumers. This way, Belgian ecommerce is still facing the results of diving a little bit too late in the ecommerce pool.
However, Belgium now scores well on the European Commissions’ Digital Scoreboard. These measures, which take into account a number of factors including availability of digital infrastructure, citizen’s engagement with digital services and connectivity, rank above the UK. According to tesymy.net, the present average download speed in Belgium is 38.4 Mbps, indicating that consumers on average, have good access to quality internet connections. This measure allows merchants a degree of confidence that users will be able to make good use of rich media services such as video content.
Most online purchases of Belgian consumers are still taking place in neighboring countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and France. However, whereas 75 percent of the top 100’s revenue was generated thanks to foreign customers last year, that share is now 72 percent. So, Belgian ecommerce companies are slowly gaining ground in their own country. But only in terms of revenue, because the number of Belgian ecommerce players in the BeShopping100 list has decreased from 32 to 28. Also, the share of Belgian consumers who shop online in Belgium has decreased, from 26 percent last year to 24 percent now.
The need to tailor offerings according to local laws, culture, and in two languages (French and Dutch), combined with a small population, make Belgium a somewhat more difficult market for those entering the EU ecommerce division. However, in February 2008, eBay introduced a system to allow users in Belgium to register using an electronic identity card instead of a credit card. Using this government-issued electronic identity card, known as eID, provides greater proof of identity and security in exchange of electronic data. Such increased security provides for greater trust in the ecommerce market and may offer a boost in attractiveness.
For the Belgian market, localisation will be hard and have increased levels of expectation. The two regions, Wallonia and Flanders set their own requirements, even for domestic retailers trying to trade nationally. French language websites will fare better in Wallonia than Flanders whilst Dutch will work in the latter region. Interestingly, a report in the Brussels Times cited data from Taalbarometer VUB 20115 which showed that French (89%) was the main language in Brussels, with decreasing numbers of the population speaking Dutch (23%). More people now speak English in the capital (23%). Of course, there are also significant numbers of the Belgian population who are multilingual, with German, French, Dutch and English being spoken, and the cultural challenge should be recognised by merchants looking to trade in to the country.
As in any territory, there is always a reluctance to trust online merchants early on in the trading relationship, certainly until a degree of transactional history has been created. Getting customers to purchase for the first time is the biggest challenge; keeping them comes down to the strength of the proposition and how closely the brand sticks to the customer promise. In Belgium, key drivers for online purchasing are price (46%) and simple returns (57%).
Belgian customers primarily use cards and online bank payment method to pay online, while in Luxembourg customers use credit cards, like Visa, MasterCard, American Express and JCB and sometimes PayPal.
30% of online payments are made through Bancontact/Mistercash. Bancontact is a domestic payment method that is linked to a bank account and can be used instore, online and via a mobile app. Bancontact transactions don’t have the risk associated with chargebacks commonly associated with card payments. According to Worldpay, over 80% of online merchants in Belgium accept Bancontact
Alternatives include bank transfers, which account for 18%; cash on delivery at 10% and Prepay at 4%. PayPal also has a significant presence with 12% of transactions going through the platform.
In Belgium, 91% of Belgian consumers haven’t experienced online banking fraud. However, 1% have done so on a regular basis whilst 8% have been impacted occasionally. This low level of impact and fear goes some-way to explaining why payment cards are still the main method for paying online in Belgium. The international card schemes, Visa, MasterCard and American Express have all introduced additional security features for online card payments. The most notable is 3D-Secure. This is a mechanism by which card users have to authenticate themselves during the online transaction by responding to a security challenge, usually providing a full or partial password response. Card issuers in both territories are supporting 3D-Secure functionality and according to the Ogone 3D Secure Barometer in 2014, that latest data available, 60% of Dutch and 89% of Belgian online card transactions are being authenticated by this method.
Belgium use of mobile devices for transactions isn’t far behind the European average in terms of mobile share of ecommerce, equating to, 12% of total online sales or €969m in 2015.
Belgium on its own could actually be described as three different countries; although technically one country it is made of three distinct regions, with Flanders in the north and Wallonia in the south. From a federal perspective, Brussels is treated as a separate region, with both French and Dutch being official languages. International businesses should be aware that French is spoken in Wallonia and Dutch spoken in Flanders and therefore websites may need to be available in more than one language if they are to appeal to shoppers in these areas. Being a founder member of the European Union and host to the epicentre of the EU’s bureaucracy in Brussels, Belgium plays an important role as an international crossroads. Domestically however, its form of government can make it slow to react to economic changes and other social challenges. As the home to the European Commission, English is a main language and international trade is at its core; providing opportunities for international merchants. Belgium ranked 9th in the AT Kearney global rankings of ecommerce readiness. A er Brussels, Antwerp is the largest city in Belgium. With a commercial lineage, including diamond trading, and Europe’s second largest port after Rotterdam, the city is a gateway to central Europe with excellent road, rail and canal networks.
In the Dutch and Belgian markets there are 22 million people in the 15-79 age group living in an area of 72,000 sq km. This population density creates a compact online community with excellent road, rail and air transport links, making both countries easy to access from EU and international states. Internationally available carriers, including domestic brands, can provide a full range of services ranging from next day services to economy. As would be expected, many of these can handle tax and duties payments as part of their service. As in any market, consumers expect quality service and international merchants need to match local standards, such as Dutch consumers expecting deliveries in less than 5 days. The ability to process returns is important to all consumers and consumers in both countries have the legal right to do so within 14 days a er the date of delivery.
Bpost is still the most popular logistics carriers in Belgium as 59% of the companies surveyed made use of their services. Kiala (39%), DPD (24%) and TNT PostPakketService (12%) are also quite popular.
In addition to the global carriers mentioned eblow (which will also be domestic carriers in some markets), domestic carriers based in the retailer’s own market will often accept online retail orders and ship them to Belgium through third parties. Domestic carriers will sub-contract the onward shipment, often to a global carriers or postal service, but for a retailer holding a contract with a domestic carrier this can be a natural starting point for accessing services in cross-border markets. Finding out what options they provide can be a useful benchmark. Service times will vary depending on the line haul arrangements in place and the service partner chosen.
These two companies have now combined and dependent on the service required and the point of origin, different services may be ffered. As examples transit times are shown from the UK and the US:
UPS offers a range of services and delivery times to Belgium subject to country of origin and the specific destination. The example service times below are from the UK from where all the services are available except UPS Expedited (which applies only to non-EU destinations). UPS services are designed for business deliveries and the service times shown are for delivery to business areas. Residential / rural areas may take a little longer and may incur a surcharge.
The Express services come with a money back guarantee should the delivery be attempted after the specified time.
DHL offers four service options to Belgium with example transit times to main centres shown below – deliveries to remote areas may take slightly longer:
For ecommerce deliveries it is likely that the most viable option will be Export Economy Select where, by example delivery from the UK is 2 working days.
DPD offers four main international services to Belgium with availability and transit times dependent on the origin of the shipments:
The speed of delivery available from a retailer is important to consumers when they are making the decision to shop with them. 42% of Belgium consumers consider it important that a maximum 3-day delivery option should be on o er 13.
The UPS study also confirms that the majority of Dutch consumers (76%) expect next day delivery as the norm from local retailers, compared with an average 38% of shoppers in the other European countries surveyed where a 2-day delivery is acceptable (60%).
The question of taxes and duties needs to be referenced under the heading of logistics because any error can clearly delay clearance and delivery to the customer. The delivery operator selected will be able to provide full details and advice on the necessary documentation and processes and some can go further by pre-clearing orders whilst the goods are in transit or at the start of their journey using a Consumer Duty Paid process. This can be done using the HTS (Harmonised Tariff Schedule) code assigned to each product category and can reduce delivery times and remove a potential barrier of having the goods held when they arrive in Belgium. Retailers are therefore advised to specifically ask what their chosen delivery partner can do to facilitate customs clearance and duty calculation / collection. Of course as a member of the European Union dispatches from within the European Union to Belgium will not be subject to customs clearance.
For both the Dutch and Belgian markets, there is a €150 threshold8 above which consumers are expected to pay duties. For businesses that aren’t resident in Belgium and sell goods to consumers via the internet, there is a €35,0009 threshold before registration is compulsory. For consignments up to €22, consumers aren’t liable for either VAT or duties when purchasing online from a non-EU business. Between €22 and €150, VAT becomes due but duties aren’t applied. Over €150 and both VAT and duties become chargeable. Alcohol, perfumes and toilet waters attract excise duty at any value.
The Ministry of the Economy (www.mineco.fgov.be) deals with fair trade practices on the internet (pricing, advertising, etc). Data- protection issues related to the internet or ecommerce are handled by the Belgian data protection authority (www.privacycommission. be). The regulation of internet access tariffs is done by the Belgian Institute for Post and Telecommunications (www.bipt.be). The Bel- gian legislator recently adopted an act strengthening the powers of the Belgian Institute for Post and Telecommunications. 
There is no legislation specifically addressing (business on) the inter- net. The following Acts lay down rules that can have an impact on business on the internet:
Belgium is a member of the Eurozone. Payments and transfers within Belgium and with foreign countries require no prior authorization. Belgium has no debt-to-equity requirements. Dividends may be remitted freely except in cases in which distribution would reduce net assets to less than paid-up capital. No further withholding tax or other tax is due on repatriation of the original investment or on the profits of a branch, either during active operations or upon the closing of the branch