eBags goes Deutsch

Luggage and handbag merchant eBags is banking that anti-American sentiment won’t stop a significant percentage of Germany’s 82 million citizens from shopping on the company’s newest property, ebags.de.

Launched in late September, eBags’ German Website makes no effort to hide its American origins. Other than some German legal copy, its content is in English. After consulting some of its German vendors, eBags’ executives decided to launch the site in English, though it planned to translate the copy into German during the ensuing 90 days, says Peter Cobb, cofounder/vice president of marketing and merchandising.

“We talked to some of our partners over there and asked, ‘What do we gain from having it in German as opposed to English?’” Cobb says. “The Internet is such a visual medium, and most of the people who buy online are more educated and a little younger” than the general population and therefore are more likely to be able to read English, he says.

Still, younger, more-educated Germans are also more likely to lean politically to the left, and thus are more likely to have anti-American sentiments. According to a poll published in June by Pew Research, anti-American sentiment has abated somewhat in Europe since the U.S. entered Iraq two and a half years ago, but America is still broadly disliked there. Negative feelings toward the U.S. run particularly high in Germany: Just 41% of those surveyed said they have a positive opinion of the U.S.

The question for Greenwood Village, CO-based eBags is whether anti-Americanism in Europe significantly affects consumer buying behavior. According to Harvard Business School professor John Quelch, it does, but mainly for America’s biggest brands.

“Among all European countries, Germany represents the strongest case of opposition to American foreign policy spilling over into consumer resistance to buying American brands,” says Quelch, an expert on global marketing and branding. But he adds that “this spillover is mainly affecting the cultural icon brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s rather than American brands in general.”

Cobb isn’t worried. “I think when [German consumers] see products they can have in their hands in three days, and we’re talking 5,000 products vs. a store that has 100, I think they’re going to look beyond that,” he says.

Cobb says eBags’ competition in Germany are mainly small brick-and-mortar luggage shops. Department stores and other large merchants balk at carrying luggage in Germany, he says, because the product takes up too much space and can sit on the shelf for as long as six months. More than 200 luggage and travel goods stores have closed in Germany in the past year, he adds.

A greater challenge, as far as Cobb is concerned, is the cultural and legislative fragmentation of Europe as a whole, which will complicate any further expansion.

“Each country has different consumer tastes,” he says. Moreover, “within each country, they have their own value-added tax, or VAT, and every country seems to have its own laws written on how you submit your VAT. There are lots of complexities as to how that is submitted, and it isn’t as simple as, ‘Here’s your check for last month’s VAT.’”

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