Statistics tell us that e-Commerce is safe
While several European initiatives aim to improve the safety of products sold online and some question whether e-commerce is safe, alarmist numbers of unsafe products sold online make for compelling – but misleading – headlines. The methodology behind the statistics employed in such arguments is often left unexplained, although it is crucial to understand what they actually mean. These headlines depict an exaggerated situation of product safety and e-commerce, allowing for unfounded claims concerning the safety of products sold online. Empirical evidence is essential to sound policymaking and ultimately, to create fit for purpose laws. Let’s address common questions concerning the current state of e-Commerce online in the EU.
Is purchase testing enough to have a representative perspective of product safety?
Purchase testing is the preferred method to quantify the presence of dangerous products online. Researchers and authorities conducting tests usually target the most high-risk products, such as toys, cars, and cosmetics. This risk-based approach is justified for market surveillance authorities, as they prioritise their limited resources for control and enforcement activities to check products that pose the biggest risk to consumers. Yet the results for a limited number of high-risk products tested cannot be generalised to the online market as a whole.
However, this narrow scope does mean that there is no consistent approach that allows for conclusions to be drawn about online purchases at large across all product groups. Studies based on tests on representative samples are necessary to develop a clear understanding of the share of dangerous products in the EU market, this should naturally include both offline or online sales.
Could we check every product bought in the EU Single Market?
Nobody has a clear understanding of the overall number of products sold in the EU and the share of dangerous ones, regardless of whether they are bought offline or online. It is extremely difficult to gather that kind of information because of the extraordinary number of products circulating in the EU market. Creating a proper methodology to count and aggregate that very wide range of products is extremely challenging. The available statistics are based on the value of goods traded, which does not allow for the calculation of the share of dangerous goods.
In an ideal world, authorities would be able to test every single product available on the European market to assess its conformity. In such a scenario, we would be able to have accurate statistics. Unfortunately, this is not realistic as it would require vast and disproportionate resources from national authorities.
What do alerts of dangerous products tell us about e-Commerce?
The EU Safety Gate aims to help national authorities to remove dangerous products on the EU market by flagging them through alerts. The 2021 results, published on 25 April, point out that dangerous products were circulating on the EU market. What do these 2,142 alerts tell us? We cannot calculate the share of dangerous products, but we can at least assess the trend. The report points out that “the number of alerts remained around the level of the previous 5 years”. In the same timeframe, the number of internet users in the EU who shopped online jumped from 65% to 74%. Therefore, this number does not corroborate alarmist statements about the increasing share of dangerous products sold online, especially given the growth of e-commerce. In addition, it does not provide a breakdown of whether those products were sold online or offline. The results of the EU Safety Gate suggest no rise in the share of dangerous products sold online. In fact, they show a decrease.
Consumers feel safe online
Are consumers encountering problems when buying online? A 2021 Eurostat survey provides insights into this question: a high degree (63%) of those polled did not have any problems at all. The largest problem consumers noted (22%) was the speed of delivery. Although there is no category dedicated to dangerous products, the report does cover alternate problems somewhat related to consumers feeling safe online: wrong or damaged goods/services delivered (8%), difficulties with complaints or redress (5%), and fraud (3%). It does become clear that only a minority of consumers had trouble with products they purchased online. The consumers’ opinions and feedback are important and would help to put in perspective the challenges of product safety.
These different tools and their limitations prove that measuring the number of dangerous products on the EU market, both for online and offline purchases, remains a challenge. The focus should be on implementing the most effective solutions, instead of blaming certain channels or actors. Product safety is crucial for consumers and businesses alike. This topic deserves further research to identify key bottlenecks and decide on the most efficient policy response to address them. For policymakers, the lesson to be learnt is that EU legislation simply cannot be based on anecdotal evidence. Instead, new rules need to support Europe’s digitisation, protect consumers, and assign responsibility to all the actors across the full product supply chain. Marketplaces are already voluntarily stepping up efforts to fight the sale of dangerous products as they want to retain the trust of their customers. Effective solutions to improve product safety should involve all relevant actors – those operating online and offline, in and outside the EU – to keep European consumers safe.