Germany is a natural choice for foreign companies interested in international partnerships and opportunities. It has the largest consumer market and labour force in Europe, and a multicultural one that is highly educated and technically qualified. Being one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, foreign investors doing business in Germany also benefit from the most developed scientific technologies. That could explain how they manage to have one of the most punctual large airports in the world.
Germany still has high tax rates and rather inflexible labour laws, with complex governmental regulations and safety and environmental standards that are obsessively observed. Even so, it is still the largest economy in Europe, and the government put in place policies to eliminate discrimination between local and foreign investors. The country also has strong and developed infrastructure that is easily accessible to foreign investors.
Interesting enough, Germany is also home to some of the world’s most important trade fairs. It is a leading source of offshore investment, which makes it attracting for investors seeking to build a European and worldwide expansion strategy. In this guide, we will guide you through the process of reaching Germany’s consumers, successfully making sales on ecommerce channels, and getting your products to reach the desired consumers.
The German ecommerce market is a strong force, both in Europe and worldwide; accounting for 25% of the European ecommerce turnover, and ranking 5th in the world with online sales volume. Germany also sits among the world leaders in cross-border ecommerce, behind only the US and the UK. Mobile commerce is a significant trend in Germany, with 10% of all online sales being made via a mobile device.
Where brand awareness is the factor, trust schemes can play a major role whilst clear and concise information about the product, returns and customer support is vital. Communications also include localisation of the offer and customer support channels. Germany ranks behind some smaller countries in the number of consumers that speak English.
The proliferation of social media, online communities and mobile communication have generated large amounts of consumer data of interest to marketers. Simultaneously, technologies to collect and analyze the data have improved greatly. The result is insight into the preferences of individual consumers and the ability to implement one-to-one marketing with unprecedented effectiveness. In fact, it can be argued that mobile technology will be central to all the future trends, e.g. Internet of Things, virtual or augmented reality, and wearables. Mobile is already the main focus of innovation and increased ad spending for countless major brands. This is no surprise, bearing in mind how rapidly smartphone penetration is rising globally.
Demographics show that females are more likely to make purchases via mobile devices in most categories. The gender gap is biggest in the clothing and book sectors with electricals the only sector where this is reversed. 18 to 44 year-olds are also the biggest user group in these sectors but older groups are still showing a strong propensity to use mobile channels.
Social media growth has stabilised and even showed a modest fall in 2014. However, with over 40 million user accounts, the social consumer is an important segment in the market. Social media ad revenue is expected to exceed €2.2bn in 2015; a significant proportion of total digital ad spend. There is a strong trend of users engaging with adverts on social media and becoming buyers as a result.
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram are the top seven platforms used by marketers, with Facebook leading the pack by a significant margin. Social media advertising is also about personalisation. The better you know your customer, and for that you need to have data and analytics capabilities, the better you can offer personalised marketing and increase conversion.
Mobile is of increasing importance with smartphone penetration at over 60% and clothes and electricals being the most popular sectors for the mobile consumer. The German ecommerce market survey in 2010 (market survey of the 1,000 largest online-shops of physical and digital goods) highlighted the following as the top 10 ecommerce brands. amazon.de otto.de telekom.de conrad.de neckermann.de thomann.de weltbild.de bonprix.de baur.de notebooksbilliger.de. 
German consumers are most likely to purchase fashion from foreign websites with the UK and US the favourite markets to buy from and at the same time, highlights the appetite for cross-border trading. 46% of online consumers have already purchased from a foreign website.
Special promotion days:‘Mother’sDay’ in Germany is on the second Sunday of May, as opposed to the English equivalent in March. ‘Black Friday’ has recently gained prominence, with the first dedicated sale activities taking place in 2014.
There are more than 51 million Internet users above the age of 14 in Germany. With transactions of over USD 62 billion in 2015 and ecommerce sales expected to rise to $83 billion in 2018 (a growth of 34% from 2017,) Germany has one of the largest digital buyer populations in the world. Online sales in Germany account for 8% of total retail sales, and more than half of German GDP was expected to be ecommerce related in 2017.
The German regulatory environment is following the European Union “Electronic Commerce Directive (2000/31/EC)”, providing rules for online services in the EU. It requires providers to abide by rules in the country where they are established (country of origin). Online providers must respect consumer protection rules such as indicating contact details on their website, clearly identifying advertising and protecting against spam. The Directive also grants exemptions to liability for intermediaries that transmit illegal content by third parties and for unknowingly hosting content. The European Commission released a work plan in 2012 in order to facilitate cross-border online services and reduce barriers and released a report on implementation of the action plan in 2013.
The most popular product categories are clothing/footwear, books, magazines, consumer electronics, films, cosmetics, groceries and toys. Particularly in the categories ‘consumer electronics & computers’ and ‘media’ (books, music, movies, video games,) German consumers are more likely to shop online instead making offline purchases. Price, trust and product diversity play a major role when buying. German consumers show a tendency to compare prices, whilst also placing great value on quality.
Total online sales of goods and services was approx. 66.8 million euros in 2016. In 2015, the German B2C ecommerce turnover grew by 13.3% to €59.7 billion. Germany had an online population of 62.9 million of people who were aged 15 and older.
Of the total online population, 51.6 million bought something online in 2015. The average spending per eShopper was €1,157 in 2016.
German consumers will value a number of different requirements in a different way to other markets. Particularly, the following are presented in order of importance, in general, by German consumers: 1. Clarity over consumer rights 2. Concern over ease of redress rights 3. Genuine high quality goods reassurance 4. Fear of fraud 5. Track and trace services 6. Returns and exchange 7. Ability to compare international retail offerings 8. Website speed and convenience 9. National and international delivery arrangements 10. Payments made in local currencies
German consumer reasons for not making online purchases from foreign retailers: Delivery charges too high 56% Difficult to return faulty/unsuitable goods 50% Takes too long to arrive 49% Don’t know enough to feel comfortable 41% Have concerns about credit card fraud 33% Concerns about the quality of the goods 35% Sorting out customs is a hassle 53% Currency conversion rate unfavourable 10% Language problems 18% Difficult to navigate foreign websites 17%
Customer expectations around service availability and provision differ slightly from other territories. For example, telephone contact, chat service and email support/response is expected between 08:00 and 20:00 Monday to Friday. During that time, prompt responses are required; via email within 24 hours. 1st and 2nd level support is demanded immediately. On principal, all communication is expected to be in German; if the retail site and marketing has been translated (localised) then so should customer service.
The Hermes survey mentioned above also cites 79% of consumers saying that email is easy to do and importantly, 60% say it gives them a record of the correspondence. 57% say that telephone is a good way of communicating the problem. Whatever channel is used however, it is clear that a combination of communication methods need to be available to the consumer. This is another example for the need of localised support.
The U.K., the U.S., and France are the top countries to benefit from cross-border eCommerce in Germany, primarily due to better product availability. Germany is also a popular shopping destination for European countries. 23% of digital shoppers in Italy make purchases from Germany, as do 17% and 15% from Spain and Sweden respectively.
Creating a Digital Single Market (DSM) is one of the ten priorities of the European Commission (EC). The overall objective is to bring down barriers, regulatory or otherwise, to unlock online opportunities in Europe, from ecommerce to e-government. By doing so, the EU hopes to have a way with its currently 28 member countries and create one borderless market with harmonized legislation and rules for the benefit of businesses and consumers alike throughout Europe. The aim is to allow better access for consumers and businesses to online goods and services across Europe, and to remove key differences between the online and offline worlds to break down barriers to cross-border online activity.
The European Commission set out a high-level vision in its May 6, 2015 DSM Strategy which will be followed by a number of specific and concrete legislative proposals and policy actions to be developed in 2015-2016. They are broad reaching and include reforming ecommerce sector, VAT, copyright, consumer protection and data privacy laws. DSM-related legislation will have a broad impact on U.S. companies doing business in Europe.
Businesses are increasingly becoming more online-oriented and trends suggest that the virtual B2B environment is rapidly expanding. An ibi research study conducted in 2015 found that 83% of interviewed companies frequently bought online. In addition, 20% of interviewees expected a strong increase in online purchasing within their company, and a further 53% expected at least some increase.
Data from BITKOM shows that invoice is the most popular method of payment in Germany (63% of all transactions), followed by online payment services such as PayPal, debit and credit cards, immediate transfer/Giropay, payment in advance and cash on delivery. Other payment methods include ELV, Sofort Überweisung and RatePay.
Open invoice and direct debit are much more common forms of payment in comparison to many other countries. Open invoicing mean that a third party pays merchants for products purchased and collects a shopper’s payment after the products are delivered.
It is also worth remembering that Germany is known for its high return rate. Some reports claim that the percentage of all orders being sent back is as high as 50%.
The preferred payment method of online shoppers in Germany is open invoice. A recent survey showed that 58% of the online customers in Germany order online and pay afterwards. Credit cards are also popular, as 34% of the customers use MasterCard, VISA or American Express. Other frequently used payment methods are PayPal, ELV, GiroPay, Sofort Überweisung , RatePay and Cash on Delivery.
The most preferred online payment method (38%) is ELV (short for Elektronisches Lastschriftverfahren), an electronic direct debit payment method that’s supported by banks in Germany. In the Netherlands a similar method is the absolute number one. iDeal, also a payment method that’s supported by the majority of local banks, is the preferred payment method for 55% of online shoppers.
38% ELV 25% Visa/MasterCard 16% PayPal 15% Sofort Bank 6% Giropay 
German customers are used to ordering with open invoice as the payment method. Returning items they don’t like or that don’t fit must be easy and for free. As a matter of fact, return rates can exceed 40% depending on the industry segment. However, on the upside, conversion rates when offering open invoice often outperform the European average, thus compensating or exceeding the return effect.
Some commentators are reporting an increase in the order of 23% whilst average spend per online consumer ranges from €600 to €1,000. The ever-increasing sophistication of the German shopper includes 75% having made a purchase online, 10% having made a purchase cross-border and 39% having used their mobile phone to purchase goods. Overall, ecommerce represents 15% of all non-food retail.
Smartphone (45%) and tablet (11%) ownership in Germany is neither high nor low enough when compared to other nations to have a significant impact on purchasing. Currently, 12% of shoppers there buy online using their smartphone, with 6% doing the same on tablet. We do see expected growth for mobile purchasing, but this growth is unlikely to be dramatic – 23% planning to purhase by mobile in the next year. 
In common with other markets, there are a number of issues that regulators are wrestling with, either due to domestic demand or in response to changing requirements coming out of the EU. For example, there are changes underway as to how interchange rates are set (the cost of processing a credit/debit card transaction), concern over additional charges for using certain types of payment methods, e.g debit card versus credit card, and in the German context, moves to ensure that “Sofortüberweisung” isn’t the only ‘free’ option available to customers.
To combat some of these concerns around payments and redress, a number of schemes are run that offer buyer protection. In the UK, a degree of protection is offered to consumers who use a credit card for certain transactions. In Germany, PayPal and Amazon now offer buyer protections. Trusted Shops offer a scheme that protects the buyer, promotes the merchant and includes customer reviews. Open invoice and direct debit payment types include a six-week window during which the buyer can claim a refund. 
Amazon and German-founded Otto own almost half of the online market. According to statistics from 2015, the 10 largest online retailers in Germany by turnover are: Amazon (€7,790 million), Otto (€2,300mn), Zalando (€1,031mn), Notebooksbilliger.de (€610mn), Cyberport (€404mn), Bonprix (€484mn), Tchibo (€450mn), Conrad (€433mn), Alternate (€376mn) and Apple (€369mn). 
Only four percent of German mobile phone users, on average, turn to in-store mobile payments, which is long behind the rest of the field. Two reasons particularly stood out in a Deloitte study on the matter; 45 percent cited a lack of “discernible value” added as a result of mobile payments, and 38 percent considered security a major problem, problem enough to keep them out of the fray altogether. The next biggest reason was 18 percent who said the option wasn’t even available on their device. Eleven percent cited a lack of places to use the system, nine percent called it too complicated, seven percent didn’t understand the options available and another seven percent considered the phone screen too small for such things. 
Overall fraud levels in the German market are lower than European averages, coming in at around 0.5%. Direct debit is the highest at 1.5% whilst open invoice follows a number of credit checks, allowing fraud levels to be kept down but increasing conversion rates. The risk management tools used in Germany would be familiar to managers in other territories although only those used to running customer credit accounts would be aware of the additional risk and credit checks required by open invoice. Another interesting point with direct debit is the longer period that chargebacks can be implemented by the customer; up to 8 months.
The Federal Data Protection Act (BDSG) applies to all organisations that are responsible for processing personal data. Personal data is any information relating to an identi ed or identi able natural person (data subject). An identifiable person is one who can be directly or indirectly identified, in particular by reference to a name, an identi cation number or to one or more factors specific to his physical, physiological, mental, economic, cultural or social identity. 
The following principles must be adhered to: Legal Prohibition, unless permission is granted/Consent: The collection, processing and use of personal data are permitted only if authorised by a law or if the data subject has consented to it. Direct survey of data: Personal data shall be collected directly from those affected. Without the involvement by parties affected, collection is only permitted by exception, provided that no legitimate specific interests of the data subject prevent collection. Data economy: Personal data should not be kept for longer than is necessary and should be adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purpose for which it is processed. Personal data should be anonymised if possible. Purpose limitation/Necessity: Personal data must be obtained only for specified and lawful purposes and should not be processed in any manner incompatible with that purposes. Furthermore, data processing must be necessary regarding its purpose. Transparency: Each data subject must be informed of the storage, the type of data, the purpose of the collection, processing or use and the identity of the responsible authority. There is stronger legal protection for “sensitive personal data”. Sensitive personal data is personal data consisting of information about an individual’s racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or similar beliefs, trade union membership, physical or mental health or condition, sexual life or commission of or proceedings for any offence committed or alleged to have been committed by the individual and the outcome of such proceedings.
The strong ecommerce market in Germany can be attributed to the considerable proportion of the population who own smartphones (62%). In 2016, retail sales conducted via mobile devices in Germany were worth an estimated $19.14 billion, 33.2% of its total retail ecommerce sales.
This growth is likely to continue as retailers improve their mobile websites and provide even more convenient ways of shopping on mobile devices.
Demographics suggest a stronger tendency for females to make purchases via mobile devices in most categories, particularly in the clothing and book sectors. 18 to 44 year-olds are also the biggest user group in these sectors but older groups are still showing a strong propensity to use mobile channels. 
With 10% of German online customers already having purchased cross-border and the total ecommerce market being worth nearly €50bn in 2015, the marketplace is already open to distance-selling. On the back of a strong catalogue shopping heritage, there is a well-developed B2C delivery network in Germany. Customer expectations are high with 14% expecting a 1-2 day delivery service but they are also open to collecting their packets from parcel shops or locker locations. Deutsche Post having 2,500 locations nationally provides good infrastructure for convenience and a wide range of delivery options to the customer.
For flexible parcel deliveries, Germans are more likely than other European markets to choose a parcel locker solution, such as Deutsche Post DHL’s ‘Packstation’, as their preferred delivery location, and as for returns, German businesses, such as Zalando, have set a high service standard – e.g. 100 day free returns – which domestic online customers now expect from any online vendor.
If goods are imported from outside the EU, import duties may become due based on the tariff classification, customs value and origin of the goods. The customs/VAT warehousing procedure allows the storage of goods without such goods being subject to import duties (neither VAT nor customs duties are due).
Fulfilling a customer’s order is the most physical representation of the merchant’s proposition. As part of the user experience, providing a potential customer with details of the delivery services on offer, including information about track and trace services used can improve conversion rates. The service offering is then further enhanced post-purchase by communicating the parcel number, link to track & trace the dispatch, email confirmation, push messaging (SMS/email) and as a self-service option in a customer’s account. These elements all help with customer retention; a good service will encourage repeat purchases.
Returns and exchanges are always at the forefront of a German customer’s mind. Clear information on processes and policies are expected. This information should be included in the help / FAQ section of the website, emphasised in automated emails and on delivery documents. Free returns are also expected by many customers, as a legacy of the catalogue industry. Return handling fees / restocking fees are not popular.
The standard VAT rate for importing items into Germany is 19%, with certain products, for example books, newspapers and magazines, attracting VAT at the reduced rate of 7%. VAT is calculated on the value of the goods, plus the international shipping costs and insurance, plus any import duty due.
Data protection in Germany is governed by various laws and regulations on the federal and state level. If personal data is being processed by a private entity or the federal public sector, the federal legislation, in particular the Federal Data Protection Act (Bundesdatenschutzgesetz – BDSG), applies. Germany transposed the European Data Protection Directive 95/46 into national legislation which came into force on 23 May 2001. Until now, Directive 2009/136/EC which, inter alia, contains provisions that are relevant for the use of “cookies” has not yet been transposed into German law. In addition, there are data protection regulations that apply to specific areas and that are contained in special laws which take precedence over general legislation. Examples include the German Banking Act (Kreditwesengesetz – KWG) and the Money Laundering (Prevention) Act (Geldwäschegesetz – GwG), the Telemedia Act (Telemediengesetz – TMG) and the Telecommunications Act (Telekommunikationsgesetz – TKG).
In Germany, various laws contain regulations that deal with consumer protection in the context of Ecommerce. In particular, the German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch – BGB) as well as the Introductory Law to the Civil Code (Einführungsgesetz zum BürgerlichenGesetzbuch – EGBGB) transposes the European Directives on distance selling and distant selling of financial products into German law. On June 13, 2014, the Law implementing the Directive on Consumer Rights (2011/83/EC) came into effect, amending several provisions of the German Civil Code and the Introductory Law to the Civil Code.
The Unfair Competition Act (Gesetz gegen den unlauteren Wettbewerb – UWG) includes rules on advertising while the Regulation on Price Quotations (Preisangabenverordnung – PAngV) regulates labeling and price indication.
In 2001, the Law governing Framework Conditions for Electronic Signatures (Signaturgesetz – SiG) came into effect, transposing most of the regulations contained in the European Electronic Signature Directive 1999/93/EC into German law. In addition, the German Civil Code and the Regulation on Signatures (Signaturverordnung – SiGV) also include provisions that govern the use of electronic signatures.
As a member of the Eurozone, Germany uses the euro as its currency, along with 18 other European Union countries. The Eurozone has no restrictions on the transfer or conversion of its currency, and the exchange rate is freely determined in the foreign exchange market.