Interview with Catherine Barba, pioneer of Internet in France and expert on e-commerce questions.

An innovator?

Yes, and a real pioneer! Catherine Barba tell us about how she got into digital eighteen years ago. “In 1996, there wasn’t very much going on with the Internet in France; there were fewer than 200,000 users. I had just done a six-month training course in the United States, where of course everyone already had an AOL email address.” Catherine had just graduated from the Paris-based business school ESCP, where she wrote her final dissertation on the arrival of the Internet in France and its impact on press readership. “I got the idea for my dissertation when I saw an advertisement in [TV magazine] Télérama about a competition organised by the press association.”  She won first prize. The chair of the jury was also the head of OMD, a subsidiary of advertising, marketing and corporate communications group Omnicom, which has since merged with French multinational advertising and public relations specialist Publicis. She contacted Catherine and offered her a job with OMD. So it was that Catherine entered the world of digital as an ‘intrapreneur’. “Everything had to be set up from scratch, all the spadework had to be done, everything had to be created – systems had to be formatted, the buying rules for online space had to be specified, and so on.” Then in 1999, Catherine met the boss of pioneer Internet hosting company i-France which at the time was one of the top 15 French websites. She joined i-France with a brief to grow the site revenue. “It was really at that moment that I knew I wanted to become an entrepreneur.” Then in 2001, Catherine launched out on her own and established her own company, CashStore, which she sold in 2010 to her main competitor. But she didn’t stop there. In parallel she had set up an e-commerce agency. “We created e-commerce sites, we bought the space, we worked to generate site traffic and convert it into sales. Little by little we also got into training retail business people on the Internet culture.” She sold this company in 2011 to the founder of French e-commerce specialist Vente-privee. Since then she has headed up the CB (Catherine Barba) Group. She is also a business angel, because “it’s very important to share, which is why I support companies such as Leetchi and Frenchweb.”

The disruptive idea?

Catherine is adamant that there is now a ‘digital revolution’ going on, a concept often stressed by French multi-entrepreneur and France’s ‘digital ambassador to the EU’ Gilles Babinet. She champions the idea that the transition to digital is absolutely vital for the retail sector and needs to be managed well, and she founded the CB Group to meet companies’ needs in this field. The company’s mission is to support firms in their transition to digital and help them respond to the new issues arising from this transformation. With many years in the e-commerce sector behind her, Catherine is keen to make her expertise available to the traditional retail players. “My work covers the whole of the market, from large store chains and major brands down to small local businesses.” Her consultancy work also means answering clients’ questions such as ‘What resources, either internally or from outside suppliers, do we need to dedicate to our e-commerce project?’ And what e-shopping solutions do we need?’

Why did she get interested in this?  

"When I started in digital, e-commerce sites were something quite new. My clients were [electronic and entertainment products retailer] Fnac, [online bookstore] Alapage, and [florist chain] Aquarelle. This was my day-to-day reality. I could see that this was new, innovative," recalls Catherine. She believes she has really helped to develop the sector by testing out new things. "Today this transition to digital is a basic necessity, and that’s where we’re going to create value." She also thinks that the distinction between shopping and e-shopping is set to disappear. In short, we are moving towards the inevitable disappearance of the ‘e’ bit. "When I started in e-commerce some years ago, it was a sector in its own right, a bubble in its own little corner. Today digital is absolutely everywhere, in every company, in every sector, in every job. This ‘e’ is part of everyone’s job, and everyone is involved with it every day." These days, whatever the size of the firm or the nature of its products, the Internet dimension is increasingly part and parcel of is business activities, “quite simply because everyone is now connected 24-7.”

And how does all this affect us?

 "I use the term ‘connected retail’ to describe a distribution mode which harmoniously combines physical and digital networks." Today a merchant can sell through a physical outlet, an e-commerce site, a mobile platform, a downloadable app, via the social networks, by phone or email, and all these channels provide a range of contact points with the customer which create opportunities to speak to the customer and offer him/her your goods and services. This connected commerce with a social dimension necessarily involves changes in people’s behaviour and needs. “Mobile is our new assistant for all our purchases. It enables us to get more information on a product, to compare prices, to read customer comments. You can take a photo and post it for your friends to see.” Consumers are connected all the time, digital is there throughout the shopping journey – before, during and after purchase. Catherine observes that the trust factor has shifted ground. “These days, before making a purchase, we like to see what other consumers are saying about it rather that what the brand is claiming for it.” However, the consumer also often wants to give an opinion on products, with ‘like’s, comments, etc. This need to express oneself is everywhere on e-commerce sites. It is after all a fact that you are rarely asked for your opinion when you are inside a store, which some people find frustrating. “Another thing that has changed is that we really like to have a choice.” Consumers can choose to go shopping sometimes and at other times simply have the goods delivered to their home. So the Internet has also increased demand for and expectations of choice.”

And what does the future hold?

"Paradoxically, the more digital we have the more we’re going back to real life in the sense that we now need really nice salespeople to advise us." For a long time people believed that e-commerce would kill shopping at bricks and mortar stores, but we see that just the opposite is happening. "The more digital we have the more we need social links, human contact, which is good news for the future." Catherine plans to go on providing support to retail activity going forward and is closely following all the progress being made in the sector – digitisation of points of sale, web-to-store, etc. Moreover she also intends to go on championing entrepreneurship in France – "whether by organising events such as Digital Women’s Day, investing in startups or going to talk to schools as part of the ‘100,000 Entrepreneurs’ initiative designed to encourage young people to set up their own businesses." Her very latest project is a short programme on a major television channel.