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General overview of sector

The commerce and distribution sector encompasses all types of wholesale trade (agricultural produce, non-food consumer goods, industrial equipment, etc.) and retail trade (large supermarkets, shops selling food, pharmaceuticals, perfumery, etc.), including the motor vehicle trade.

This is quite an unusual sector at European level, both because of its specific role – a daily interface between European producers and consumers – and owing to its size: it accounts for some 11% of Community GDP. According to EuroCommerce, the commerce sector employs approximately 31 million workers, or 14% of the European workforce, in 6.2 million companies, i.e. 32% of the total number of companies in Europe. Despite the ample job opportunities, however, these posts are mainly held by women and young people and there is a preponderance of part-time and fixed-term jobs.

Even though the overwhelming majority of companies are still small ones, the commerce sector (including distribution) has undergone extensive restructuring over the past 40 years. This has mainly taken the form of concentration, with the emergence of huge commercial undertakings, an increase in franchise agreements within major supply chains, a reduction in the number of traditional wholesalers, the expansion of “hard discounters”, and the introduction of new technology (electronic commerce, self-scanning, Radio Frequency Identification – RFI, etc.). This last point has moreover led to changes in skills requirements for workers, but also in the geographical location of work, in working hours, and so on.

The commerce sector has undoubtedly benefited more than others from European integration, especially from the completion of the single market and enlargement to take in the central and eastern European countries: these factors have given it a major boost. The dangers of excessive concentration in food retailing were flagged up by the European Commission as long ago as 1999 in its White Paper on commerce. Such concentration could result in “a mere handful of big chains dominating the entire retail market” (Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions – White Paper on Commerce, COM (99)6 final, 27 January 1999).

Finally, the global economic crisis of 2008-2009 led to a sharp decline in retail sales within the EU. According to Eurostat, the retail trade shrank by 2.6% in the euro zone and by 1.8% in the EU-27 between August 2008 and August 2009. This sector is in fact very susceptible to short-term economic developments.

ETUI and Observatoire Social Européen (2010) European Sectoral Social Dialogue Factsheets. Project coordinated by Christophe Degryse, online publication available at www.worker-participation.eu/EU-Social-Dialogue/Sectoral-ESD