French B2C commerce of products and services is one of the largest markets in the world, ranking second in Europe and fifth in the world in terms of online consumption in 2016. The market grew by 14% between 2015 and 2016 representing a good opportunity for U.S. retailers that have unique products and services to offer. U.S. firms tend to do well selling products and services to the French via eCommerce. In fact, although the U.S. has a trade deficit with Europe, digital services, including eCommerce sales, are where we see a significant trade surplus of $71 billion for the year ending in 2015.
The U.S. Commercial Service sees the French eCommerce market as a sizable opportunity for U.S. retailers in virtually every category. The French are fond of American culture and tend to enjoy our brands. Many firms begin by testing the market directly from their U.S. site, or using Amazon or a similar French marketplace to gauge interest. Online marketplaces are beginning to disrupt industries where traditionally starting with a distributor or sales agent would have been advisable.
For U.S. SMEs operating without a presence in Europe, it is important to understand the basic rules and regulations for selling to consumers in the market. While we expect that the Digital Single Market strategy (see below) will assist U.S. firms in adhering to one single set of rules and regulations across Europe, U.S. firms currently must navigate national and European regulations and standards for selling products online. The French tend to interpret existing EU regulations stringently, or tend to regulate in areas where the EU has not yet proposed legislation. For example, several recent online players, both U.S. and European, have been fined in France for violating rules such as the protection of consumer’s data privacy or advertising “online sales” outside of permitted holiday periods.
When approaching the EU market, U.S. Commercial Service recommends starting small and selecting the markets that show the most potential. France may be attractive not only because of the size of the market, but the effect that Brexit may have on currency fluctuations and shipping costs from the UK to the rest of the continent. If a firm determines that the French market represents a good opportunity, seek out local service providers and experts that can help with a digital marketing strategy. The U.S. Commercial Service in Paris can be a good starting point. Current Market Trends
A couple of trends are becoming more important in the B2C ecommerce, including m-commerce (smartphones and tablets), the “click-and-collect” or “click-and-reserve” options, the multichannel approach (web-to-store or store-to-web), the CtoC and social commerce.
The “click-and-collect” option for general products and grocery stores in particular has grown significantly in the past years and food grocers for example are implementing larger number of sites offering this purchasing option. The “premium” delivery subscription, just like Amazon Premium, is also developing at a fast pace. The “click-and-reserve” option is well received and already widely used in the fashion sector.
The sharing economy and its platforms are also trending in France with 60% of internet users using it for renting homes, car sharing, grouping purchases from producers (i.e. vegetables), with popular global brands such as Airbnb and Uber and local players such as BlaBla Car.
Another growing trend for e-merchants is the use of market places; their sales grew by 46% in one year and represent 26% of their total sales volume. Marketplaces now account for 9% of online purchasing and are estimated to represent more than $3.3 billion (€ 3 billion) in sales.
The shared economy has not bypassed France, with 60% buying or selling products directly with each other on websites such as Le Bon Coin. 
Domestic eCommerce (B2C)
In 2016, almost 37 million French people shopped online, which represents 80% of internet users. The average online transaction in 2016 was around $77 (€70) and online shoppers tend to shop more frequently, approximately 28 times a year, for a total amount spent of around $2,213 (€2,000) in 2016. Online shoppers purchase mainly clothing (57%), cultural products (52%), travel packages (43%), and high tech products (42%). Most of the sales volume, however, occurs in tourism (32%), clothing (10%), home equipment (7%) and click-and-collect grocery products (7%). 
Alternative Payments Methods
Market summary Cards are the main payment type in France – 76.6% of transactions, with 65.6% provided by local banks, led by Visa provider Carte Bleue. Second most common is e-wallets, representing 11.2%. PayPal holds the major share at 10.4%.
Ownership of mobile devices in France sits below the global average, with just 40% of shoppers using smartphones and 12% tablets. Spending on these devices is equivalently low, 7% spent via smartphones, 3% via tablets and just 1% of total online spending done via mobile. Around a third (28%) of shoppers express their intention to spend using this platform in the coming year. 
B2C shopping abroad is also becoming more popular; there is a growing share of cross-border online purchases taking place, although not as high as in other parts of Europe. In 2016, 46 % of French online shoppers bought from foreign e-merchants and 50% of e-merchants established in France received orders from customers located abroad.
Other Payments Methods
Allopass: specialises in pay-per-phone and pay-per-SMS (text message) payment methods. Bank Transfers, Cash on Delivery, CM-CIC Paiemanet, Hippay, Moneo, Slimpay. 
Just over 20% of French companies make purchases electronically (via a website 7% or via a digital data exchange system-EDI – 11%) which represents 18% of the total amount of sales to professionals (B2B). This market accounts for $553 billion and is expected to grow significantly in the next coming years. In 2015, most of the transactions were made in travel and transportation purchases (53%), followed by a few sectors such as boating equipment and supplies (33%), computer supplies (30%), medical supplies (25%).
While the Modernization Law of the French Administration (LME) mandated e-Invoicing reception for the French State (Ministries and related bodies) since the 1st January 2012 , the Simplification law (article 1) voted on October 4th, 2013, mandates all Economic Operators (private sector) to send electronic invoices to the public sector, from January 1st, 2017.
eCommerce Intellectual Property Rights
France is a strong defender of intellectual property rights. US firms should refer to this Country Commercial Guide’s Intellectual Property section and the local Code of Intellectual Property for further information.
Popular eCommerce Sites
Popular ecommerce sites in France include Amazon, Cdiscount, Fnac, Ebay, Voyages SNCF (travel and train tickets) and Price Minister.
All forms of ecommerce are available in France. Many companies sell products and services on the internet and use electronic data interchange (EDI) with customers/suppliers. There are a number of business-to-business (B2B) electronic-trading platforms. France is also experimenting in several cities with near-field communications (NFC), a short-range wireless technology whereby mobile phones can be used as payment and identification devices.
No local entity is required in France, although (as is the case with most Eurozone countries), an EU entity is mandatory. For Visa and MasterCard, a connection to a local acquirer is also recommended as usually this results in higher authorization rates. 
In France, 80% of online purchases are paid using debit cards tied to their bank account. The French are not accustomed to using credit cards to pay with credit. The French use other means of online payments which include electronic wallets (42%), gift vouchers (28%), virtual bank cards (16%), installment payments at no charge (15%), and 14% by direct debit authorization. Note when shopping outside of the EU, French consumers must pay an import fee for any goods purchased with the price above 22 Euros.
Many retailers in France are making mobile a priority, the report revealed, with the result that over 50% of their transactions now come via that channel. Overall, the websites of French retailers optimized for mcommerce posted a conversion rate of 3.1%, compared with 1.5% for nonoptimized sites. Apps also played a major role as aids to mobile purchasing, Criteo indicated. Apps generated 47% of retailers’ mobile revenues during the period assessed, and 42% of last-minute mobile travel bookings were made with an app.
Multichannel shopping is increasingly common, too. Criteo found that 40% of digital purchases by residents in France involved at least two platforms or devices. Using multiple devices didn’t mean that consumers were abandoning familiar retailers, though. In 46% of cases, shoppers simply used several devices to consult the same retailer more than once before making a purchase. And even if consumers did most of their research on a desktop or laptop PC, 23% actually bought on a smartphone or tablet. 
In 2015, 6.6 million people made a purchase through their mobile phone, representing a total market of $7 billion. Sales on mobile phones and tablets continue to grow very fast and they already account for 25% of total sales on the major eCommerce platforms.
Major Buying Holidays
The major holidays driving purchases in France include Christmas, Mother’s Day (last Sunday of May), Father’s Day (second to last Sunday in June), and Valentine’s Day. In addition, seasonal sales (“les soldes”) run for six weeks in early January and again in the summer from late June. The popular American sales date of “Black Friday” does not exist in France. The dates for sales moreover, whether online or in stores, are determined by French Trade Law.
Social media is becoming significantly relevant for French users. The trend for firms is to be present products on various social media platforms, and to continue being active with content and recommendations. Facebook is still the premier choice for e-merchants followed by Instagram and Twitter. In France, monthly visitor to popular social media sites are as follows:
- YouTube 49 million,
- Facebook 30 million,
- LinkedIn 14 million,
- Twitter 13.9 million,
- Instagram 13.5 million,
- Snapchat 10 million,
- Viadeo 10 million and (French competitor to LinkedIn),
- WhatsApp 9.4 million.
The European Union’s Digital Single Market Initiative
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, and to unlock online opportunities in Europe, from ecommerce to e-government. By doing so, the EU hopes to do away with the current 28 fragmented markets and create one borderless market with harmonized legislation and rules for the benefit of businesses and consumers alike throughout Europe. Although the primary goal is to foster innovation and assist European SMEs, U.S. firms are poised to also benefit from the single digital market concept.
The EC set out its vision in its May 6, 2015 DSM Strategy which has been followed by many concrete legislative proposals and policy actions. They are broad reaching and include reforming ecommerce sector, VAT, copyright, audio-visual media services, consumer protection, and telecommunications laws. Most of these proposals are currently going through the legislative process. DSM-related legislation will have a broad impact on U.S. companies doing business in Europe.
For more information, visit the European Country Commercial Guide or the following links: Digital single market
DSM Strategy: A Digital Single Market Strategy for Europe
The French regulatory environment is following the European Union “Electronic Commerce Directive (2000/31/EC) as mentioned in the section “Direct Marketing” above, 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 providing contact details on their website, clearly identifying advertising and protecting registrants 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 to facilitate cross-border online services and reduce barriers and released a report on implementation of the action plan in 2013.
Key Link: Boosting ecommerce in the EU
Data Privacy and Protection
Current Situation: The New General Data Privacy Regulation
The EU data privacy framework is currently going through a legislative transition.
The currently applicable legislation is the Data Protection Directive (95/46/EC) adopted in 1995. It spells out strict rules concerning the processing of personal data. Businesses must tell consumers that they are collecting data, what they intend to use it for, and to whom it will be disclosed. Data subjects must be given the opportunity to object to the processing of their personal details and to opt-out of having them used for direct marketing purposes. This opt-out should be available at the time of collection and at any point thereafter.
On May 4, 2016, the EU adopted a new piece of legislation called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The GDPR will replace the 1995 Data Privacy Directive. However, there will be two-year transition period to allow companies and organizations (including those U.S. entities that receive data from European customers) to comply with the numerous new requirements introduced. The transition period will end on May 25, 2018.
The GDPR is broad in scope and applies to all companies who collect, process, and/or store the personal data of European citizens regardless of whether a company has a physical presence in Europe or directly provides goods or services to European customers.
Among the many requirements are: erasure for data subjects, an obligation for organizations to obtain “affirmative and unambiguous” consent for processing personal data, an obligation to report personal data breaches, the requirement under certain circumstances to conduct a privacy impact assessment before processing personal data, and for organizations that fill certain criteria, the mandatory appointment of a Data Protection Officer.
Companies are strongly encouraged to do due diligence and seek legal advice from an attorney specializing in European data privacy law to ensure they comply with this legislation. France’s data protection authority (CNIL), strictly monitors and enforces the laws regarding the protection of French citizen’s personal data. There are many recent firms that have been fined in France due to their lack of adherence to the current data privacy regulations. Fines in case of non-compliance could reach four percent of the annual global revenue of the company after May 2018.
Full GDPR text
Official press release
Transferring Customer Data to Countries outside the EU
The EU’s current Data Protection Directive, which will be fully replaced by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as of May 25, 2018, provides for the free flow of personal data within the EU but also for its protection when it leaves the region’s borders.
The GDPR (Chapter 5 – Article 44 onwards) sets out obligations on data controllers (those in charge of deciding what personal data is collected and how/why it is processed), on data processors (those who act on behalf of the controller) and gives rights to data subjects (the individuals to whom the data relates). These rules were designed to provide a high level of privacy protection for personal data, and were complemented by measures to ensure the protection is maintained when data leaves the region, whether it is transferred to controllers, processors or to third parties (e.g. subcontractors). EU legislators put restrictions on transfers of personal data outside of the EU, specifying that such data could only be exported if “adequate protection” is provided.
The European Commission (EC) is responsible for assessing whether a country outside the EU has a legal framework that provides sufficient protection for it to issue an “adequacy finding” to that country. The U.S. has never sought to be found adequate by the EC. This means that U.S. companies can only receive personal data from the EU if they:
- Join the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield program, or
- Provide appropriate safeguards (e.g. contractual clauses, binding corporate rules), or,
- Refer to one of the GDPR’s derogations,
European Commission’s webpage on transfers outside the EU and all mechanisms outlined below:
- Export.gov “France – eCommerce”
- Worldpay. “Alternative Payments 2nd Edition Report”
- Worldpay. “Global Shopper”
- The Paypers “Payments France”
- PEOPPL “France – National e-voicing context”
- EMarketer. “1 in 5 Ecommerce Purchases in France Happens Via Mobile”