Last week the European Commission announced three separate investigations into anti-competitive practices in e-commerce. These investigations are the first enforcement actions that come on the back of DG COMP’s e-commerce sector inquiry, an initiative that has not even come to its end. The three investigations target consumer electronics manufacturers suspected of having imposed retail pricing restrictions on online retailers, PC video games producers’ geo-blocking practices and hotel price discrimination provisions implemented by Europe’s largest tour operators. The latter case essentially concerns clauses that discriminate between customers based on their nationality or country of residence — a no-go in the EU’s internal market.
The Commission’s preliminary report on the sector inquiry that was published last September has already uncovered various restrictions imposed by companies as regards the online distribution or promotion of their products. Pricing restrictions, geographic restrictions, limitations to advertise online or to use price comparison tools are just some of the practices the Commission is currently looking at. As I have mentioned before, a key issue that deserves far greater scrutiny is the restriction against selling on online marketplaces like eBay, Amazon Marketplace or Allegro. These so-called ‘online marketplace bans’ are often imposed by manufacturers on their authorized resellers prohibiting them from selling their products through a reseller’s shop on an online marketplace.
It goes without saying that resellers suffer from these bans. The most popular online marketplaces have millions of customers who could all be potential clients of resellers, no matter how big or small the reseller is. Marketplaces provide resellers access to consumers at a scale no individual reseller webshop is able to provide — unless resellers were to invest massively into online advertising or search engine optimization which most simply cannot afford. Online marketplaces provide a trusted shopping environment together with secure payment technology that attracts and retains consumers. And importantly, online marketplaces are poised to grow as a sales channel since more and more consumers shop through their mobile devices. Online marketplaces provide a great opportunity for sellers to reach the ‘mobile customer’ through their successful and trusted apps. That is particularly true for smaller sellers since they are more reliant on marketplaces than their bigger competitors — a finding also made by DG COMP’s preliminary report on the sector inquiry. On top of that marketplaces greatly facilitate cross-border trade within the EU as they are often pan-national online platforms. This is not a minor point as one of the Commission’s key policy objective is to increase cross-border sales.