- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2000

American companies remain the world's towering giants when it comes to exploiting opportunities in electronic commerce, but may not appreciate crucial cultural differences when expanding overseas, according to a new study.

European companies, accustomed to operating in a multilingual, multinational business environment from an early stage, are better equipped to tackle this aspect of international electronic commerce than Americans, an analysis by Andersen Consulting shows.

The European advantage in applying wireless technologies suggests that the Old World might be able to get a leg up in the New Economy over the next few years.

"There are a few areas where the Europeans could take a leadership role," said Glover Ferguson, the consulting firm's chief scientist.

This situation represents something of a turnaround for European businesses that Andersen surveyed, which were ready to accept regulation of Internet-based commerce as recently as two years ago, and squeamish about the implications for personal privacy. Now, electronic commerce is taking off and gaining widespread acceptance as a vital tool for the businesses of the future.

Still, the Americans remain, overwhelmingly, the top dogs in the Internet sector. In 1999, the United States generated 67 percent of the world's revenues in business-to-business electronic commerce and 76 percent of business-to-consumer revenues. Europe, by comparison, had 14 percent in both categories.

Andersen Consulting is one of the world's largest management consulting companies, and it prepared the study in part to sell European and American companies on the importance of integrating electronic commerce into their business models. Multinational companies have taken to this process with gusto, smaller businesses less so, Mr. Ferguson said.

American executives surveyed by Andersen were much less likely to use the Internet to foster geographical expansion than their European counterparts. Only one-third of them saw reasons to adapt their Web sites to other cultures, a potentially dangerous weakness, according to Andersen.

Repeated studies have shown that Internet users are more likely to make a purchase if the site is in their own language.

Mr. Ferguson said that having so many different languages cheek-by-jowl in a market that is now unified by a single currency, the euro, has made Europeans much more sensitive to the effects of cultural differences on business.

"Americans just tend to be ignorant of cultural differences," Mr. Ferguson said. "In Europe, you can't sneeze without hitting someone who speaks another language."

The use of wireless technology, already much more widespread in Europe and Japan than in the United States, also provides an important window of opportunity for European companies, Mr. Ferguson said.

As businesses and consumers begin to use devices other than personal computers, such as mobile telephones and personal organizers, to connect to the Internet, Europeans have a chance to exploit the continent's edge in this area.

"[U]nless they can capitalize on that lead, Europeans could once again find the business value of a technological advantage is lost to more dynamic competitors," Andersen concluded.

Mr. Ferguson said European companies, though ahead of American firms in their use of wireless technology in electronic commerce, could fall behind quickly.

A survey of attitudes among American executives showed that they are nevertheless far more willing to incorporate this technology into their business than Europeans in the future.

"The Americans are still up for doing just about anything," Mr. Ferguson said.

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