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Lacy slips from France. Cuckoo clocks from Germany. Beeswax candles and linen tablecloths from Ireland. Irreplaceable treasures gathered during a journey through Europe, right?
You could search Europe looking for them, or you could turn on your computer. Dozens of European shops have stepped out onto the Internet - just in time for the holidays - with the help of an industry-wide initiative called e-Christmas.
offers quite a bit more than the run-of-the-mill online shopping mall. A shopper can browse in his language of choice - English, French, Dutch, Italian, German, or Spanish - and calculate costs in her local currency: U.S. dollars; French, Belgian, and Swiss francs; lire; yen; pesetas; English and Irish pounds; or Dutch guilders.
More importantly, say the project's sponsors, e-Christmas is an opportunity for European businesses to jump onto the learning curve in electronic commerce.
"There is a wave of momentum building behind electronic commerce world-wide," said John Leftwich, vice president of marketing for Microsoft Europe. "The goal of e-Christmas is to make sure European businesses don't miss the wave and get left behind their competitors."
Technology's big guns are behind the project, which began this July. A consortium of companies, including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Eurocard-MasterCard, KPMG, UPS, and Visa, worked with more than 100 businesses to get the Web site up and running in time for the holidays. The site's architecture was developed with Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft technologies, including Windows NT and BackOffice Server.
"It should have been a two-year project," said Nicholas Horslen, Microsoft's project manager for e-Christmas. "Some nights we just worked through the whole night, we just never went to bed. It's classic Microsoft stuff - if you sat down and talked about it, you'd never believe you could do it."
The result is interesting. Not only can a shopper leisurely browse through a modest collection of European goods - from the finest to the very mundane - on the e-Christmas Web site, but those purchases can be delivered virtually anywhere in the world. A tariff and duty engine calculates the hidden costs for 26 different countries.
"This project was a chance for European businesses to roll up their sleeves and do something with electronic commerce, rather than just sit around and hypothesize," Horslen said. "These are pioneering days."
Lace Egg Cups
This particular shopper decided to try it out. I clicked on to the e-Christmas site, registered as directed, and was warmly welcomed by a vividly violet Web page offering a "gift finder," a "shop finder," or a random selection of gifts to browse through. I chose the random selection.
I managed to navigate to a pistachio-colored page and was presented with a selection of gift possibilities. At the top of the list was an intriguing description: Adults Replica Home Socks at West Ham United Football Club. After some clicking, I learned that the West Ham Football Club is a London soccer team founded in 1895. They'd been visited by royalty three times, among other achievements.
The socks themselves are very long and bright red. I decided one of my brothers definitely needed a pair of English soccer socks. I clicked them into my virtual shopping basket and returned to the random list.
And then I saw it. The perfect, irreplaceable, extraordinary Christmas gift.
A lace bread and egg basket from Brussels, Belgium. Handmade by the descendents of someone named Louise Verschueren. I had to see them. I had to know what a bread and egg basket was.
The Web site pulled up a photograph of a carefully laid breakfast table. Delicate teacups sparkled among the silver and linen. And in the middle of the sunny table lay the bread and egg baskets.
Shaped like a snowflake, the lacey basket cradles several buns or hardboiled eggs in their own little nests. I don't know what they'll do with it, but someone in my family definitely needs a bread and egg basket. I don't know how we've managed this long without one. I added the treasure to my shopping basket and proceeded to the virtual cashier.
Shipping and import duties substantially boosted the price, whether I wanted my purchases delivered to the United States, where I live - or to Germany, England, South Africa or Venezuela, for that matter.
Still, it's cheaper than flying to Belgium to buy a beautiful bread and egg basket, or to England to pick up a pair of soccer socks. That's what I told myself, anyway, as I punched in my credit card numbers.
Horslen explained that shipping charges are a reality whenever you shop by mail or Internet, and taxes or tariffs vary depending where you buy and where you live. Those add-on fees "illustrate many of the issues that merchants, carriers and consumers will be putting their brains and business skill to, to expand their market reach and grow their business in the future," he said.
Industry leaders in Europe have been sounding alarm bells over the potential of an electronic trade deficit with the United States and the Pacific Rim region - places that have begun to embrace the Internet and its possibilities. Europe has been lagging behind, said Horslen.
"With e-Christmas we wanted to create an opportunity to raise awareness in Europe about electronic commerce and to educate people, he said. Most merchants don't even know what an ISP is," he said, referring to Internet service providers, which provide Internet access to companies and individuals.
Only 16 percent of European businesses consider their Internet strategy to be important, compared to 30 percent of U.S. and Japanese companies and 52 percent of Asia Pacific companies, according to a recent study. "The Internet in Europe is basically a mess," Horslen said. "The 'World Wide Web' couldn't better describe it."