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Buying online is a fledgling but growing practice, although shoppers in some markets have taken to the Internet more readily than others. France, for instance, has been slower off the block than the UK but, as Peter Crosskey reports, French consumers are embracing online shopping – of a kind.

In France, travel and services, not grocery, have generally topped the list of online shopping destinations. “Compared to other sectors, food has been a small part of French online trade,” explains Marie Giroud, chargée de mission at the French e-commerce trade association ACSEL. “The cost of delivery and offering low consumer prices are just two of the factors that have held back online food trading.”

Existing business structures, such as the franchising practised in some of France’s major chains, have also been a brake on the development of online grocery retailing, while the country’s planning laws have also added a twist to e-commerce solutions.

Furthermore, Internet coverage remains very variable across France, with patchy broadband coverage outside major centres of population. France Minitel system – which launched in 1982 and allowed consumers to buy goods and services over the phone – worked over the telephone cables of the day but upgrading the remoter parts of the French network for broadband use will take years.

However, there are signs that buying food over the Internet is becoming more popular in France, including, notably, the hybrid systems developed by the likes of retail giant Auchan.

Total online sales rose by 31% to EUR22.49bn in 2009, according to ACSEL’s annual sales barometer, based on payment service-providers’ data. The fastest-growing category in the fourth quarter was wine and gastronomy, although the survey did not disclose specific sales data – including the value of the category.

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By GlobalData

Major French retailers are making strides online. Cora opened France’s first online supermarket at in 2000: this outlet now offers 50,000 food and non-food lines for home delivery in the Paris region and 24 départements. Delivery prices range from free to EUR11.95.

High-street food retailer Monoprix, a subsidiary of department store Galeries Lafayette, started to work with home-delivery specialist Télémarket in 2000, until Télémarket transferred its food-delivery partnership to Monoprix’s other shareholder, Casino, in 2008. Monoprix then set up its own online sales site at that makes home deliveries with a complex sliding scale of charges that reflect previous purchases.

“The Monoprix online offering is available wherever there are Monoprix stores, since it uses a local store picking format,” explains Olivier Bitoun, author of the book E-commerce et distribution, published by the French online retailers’ association ACSEL. “But Auchan has made some of the most intelligent online innovations.”

Auchan opened in 2001 to fulfill warehouse-picked home deliveries. Today, online consumers in the Ile de France, Lyon, Toulouse and Lille can choose from 6,000 food listings (and some basic non-food essentials, such as soap and toothpaste) for a minimum order of EUR60, with home delivery costing up to EUR9.99, depending on the purchases.

In 2004, Auchan launched an innovative queue-busting solution for its hypermarkets by opening Auchan Drive, where goods pre-ordered and paid for online could be collected from dedicated loading bays alongside the hypermarkets.

The multiple also became a major shareholder in Chronodrive in 2004. Chronodrive was an ingenious way to extend Auchan’s catchment area; at the time, complex planning laws made applications for retail premises over 300 square metres subject to long and intense scrutiny. “These collection depots do not admit the public, so they are not subject to the same regulations and constraints as public buildings,” explains Bitoun.

The Auchan Drive network currently takes in 22 stores, which require about two dozen staff per site to operate, most of them allocated to customer service. The format has since been copied assiduously by Leclerc in its Express Drive service. “It allows franchisees to exploit online selling locally, without having a centralised operation cannibalise their sales,” observes Bitoun.

Smaller companies are also contributing to the development of France’s online channel. The butchery specialist site has developed a successful online format that is being extended to other sectors and rebranded as

“We opened in April 2006 and by 2007 our sales reached EUR 240,000,” director Amandine Messié tells just-food. “In 2009 we topped EUR1m in meat alone, without counting any of the other departments.”

Since rolling out the format to wine, charcuterie and fresh produce, Messié has been able to offer her 10,000 customers “…a single shopping basket, one order, one delivery, one payment…” for four categories. Fish and cheese offerings are planned for later this year.

“The take-up has been terrific, because offers prices 15%-20% cheaper than a Paris retail butcher, with more choice – especially in offal: it’s all part of our commitment to service. Best of all, customers recommend us to their friends and word of mouth referrals are incredibly valuable.”

Meanwhile, specialist chocolatier La Maison du Chocolat uses online retailing to recruit new customers as well as keeping in touch with its existing clientele. Its online presentation is as carefully groomed as its physical shops.

“For us, the online shop has to be in harmony with the house style used in the physical shops,” a spokeswoman tells just-food. Orders are fulfilled around the world from the nearest shop, thus the Nanterre site in France will ship to Europe (except UK), the London shop will deliver UK orders, the US is covered from the New York outlet, while Japanese orders are supplied from a store in Tokyo. For clarity, destinations are listed against a map of the world.