Italy's e-commerce boom leaves hangover for some

Online sales beat expectations but some buyers claim to have been victims of fraud

Italy's e-commerce sector has celebrated a bumper Christmas, but some people are left nursing a hangover now that the party is over.

Online sales in Italy over the holiday season were the best ever and beat expectations, Roberto Liscia, the president of Netcomm, a consortium of online vendors, told Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper Wednesday.

"We had estimated e-commerce purchases worth 2.5 billion euros (US $2.95 billion). Instead we reached 3 billion euros, with an annual increase of 28 percent," Liscia told the business daily. Italy's online holiday sales grew 14 percent in 2012, and 21 percent in 2013, with more than 10 million people shopping for gifts online this year, Liscia said.

Italy still lags other European countries, however. Just 4 percent of Italian companies sell their products online, compared to a European average of 15 percent, Liscia said.

Among those not celebrating, however, were the online clients of Italia Digital, a company based in Lucca, in northwest Italy, which sold technology products through five online portals: italiadigital.it, affaricerti.it, mediaprezzi.it, affaridigitali.it, and megaprezzi.it.

On Dec. 13 the portals closed, publishing an announcement that they were undergoing maintenance, and customers received emails informing them that the company was in crisis and unable to provide them with either the goods ordered or a refund.

Published reports suggest thousands of consumers may have been defrauded for a total of around €500,000 of undelivered IT products.

Police in the town of San Concordio have reportedly placed the administrator of Italia Digital, Daniela Simonetti, under investigation for fraud after summoning her for questioning in recent days.

A consumer organization, the Movement for the Defense of the Citizen (MDC), says it has lodged a complaint with the Antitrust Authority and the Lucca prosecutor's office, calling on those responsible to be charged with fraud and fraudulent bankruptcy.

"The ecommerce market is a resource for the economy of the nation, whose development must not be damaged by these episodes, which must be prosecuted with the maximum severity by the magistrates," MDC said in a statement on its website.

Disappointed customers of another e-commerce failure have until Jan. 12 to file a claim for losses with Milan's bankruptcy court, the Corriere della Sera reported Wednesday.

The failed venture, Happyprice, which aimed to become the Italian Groupon, offering discounted group sales through the portal prezzofelice.it, closed for business in June and was declared bankrupt July 31.

The collapse came despite the support of wealthy backers, who included Leonardo Etro, nephew of the fashion designer Gerolamo Etro, and the three youngest children of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi: Barbara, Eleonora and Luigi.

The investors have blamed the company's administrator, Pietro Dore, for allegedly keeping the true financial situation from them and concealing the existence of losses of around €2 million.

Part of the company's problems stemmed from an excessive dependence on the sale of mobile phones, which offer a very low margin of profit, internal company documents showed.

"It sold smartphones with a 50 percent discount, but only for a few seconds. Then you got the more expensive and, obviously, less desirable version," the consumer association Altroconsumo complained, denouncing Happyprice to the Antitrust Authority for unfair business practices.

The Milan bankruptcy court will begin examining claims against Happyprice on Feb. 10, holding out a slim prospect of relief for those not best pleased with the way Italy's e-commerce sector operates.

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