Italians are emotional, the Swiss are punctual: This shopping site is making billions by tailoring its services to European stereotypes

She’ll probably pay with a credit card.
She’ll probably pay with a credit card.
Image: Getty Images Europe/Chris Jackson
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The name Zalando is unfamiliar to most people outside Europe, but on the continent, the online shopping site has exploded since it started selling flip-flops in 2008. After a massive growth spurt in 2010—Zalando spokesperson Boris Radke says monthly sales shot from €2 million ($2.7 million at the time) to €70 million in just five months—the Berlin-based start-up expanded into other countries and product categories. In 2014, the company went public on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.

Now, it’s Europe’s largest dedicated online apparel retailer, with several thousand employees facilitating annual sales topping €2.2 billion. Zalando ships clothes and shoes to customers in 15 different countries, where shoppers demonstrate the idiosyncratic habits that make Europe’s e-commerce market so notoriously fragmented.

“The biggest advantage that Zalando has gained in Europe is that we’ve adapted very well to each market,” Radke told Quartz, pausing by a series of country maps on the wall of the company’s shiny new Berlin headquarters. The maps feature playful emblems of each nation—model Doutzen Kroes and marijuana from the Netherlands, for example.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all.”

At Zalando’s Berlin office, specialized teams of locals from seven regions (grouped by both shopping habits and geography) study consumer behavior and customize the website, including product assortment and payment options, according to each nation’s preference.

Embracing—and exploiting—those behaviors has helped Zalando’s growth.

“The US is all about simplicity. Europe is all about complexity,” said Radke, in reference to e-commerce models. “All the prejudices you have are really confirmed…It’s a lot of fun.”

Here’s what Radke said they’ve observed so far.

The Swiss are punctual and orderly

“The Swiss people, they wake up earlier than the others. They want to have access to the customer care one hour before the Germans,” said Radke. So Zalando’s Switzerland team provides that earlier service.

He added that they need 30 days to pay their invoices, because they do it one time per month, with all their other bills.

The Italians are emotional

“Italians are very emotional when it comes to everything they do in terms of shopping,” said Radke. “You can see, they put a lot in the basket and then they take a lot out. And they sometimes take some very expensive stuff, and then when it comes to paying, they take it out again.”

Spaniards and Italians tend to make use of Zalando’s option to pay for purchases with cash on delivery. “We have to build the trust,” said Radke.

The French love a sale

“You have countries that are very well-trained on their sale periods, like France,” Radke said, explaining that the soldes, or seasonal sales, in France are state-mandated. “It’s totally comparable to Black Friday. Usually it takes a couple of weeks, and in that time all the French people buy all their clothes.”

The British and the French use credit cards—the Germans, not so much

Naturally, because Zalando is based in Germany, the company views German shopping behavior as “normal”—by European standards anyway. While countries such as France and the United Kingdom use credit cards (“totally Americanized,” said Radke), shoppers in the Dach region, which includes Germany, Switzerland, and Austria can pay for e-shopping as they are accustomed—largely by receiving invoices and making bank transfers for the items they decide to keep.

The Nordic countries are ahead of the curve

“The Nordics are very clean, very sophisticated in their shopping behavior. They like to spend also some good money on what they want to have,” said Radke, adding that more frequently than their neighbors to the south, they do it on mobile devices. “The whole Nordics for us, it’s a very good turf because they understand online.”

And of course, everything in Sweden always goes smoothly.