Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt asks EU Court of Justice to rule on restriction of sales on online platforms in selective distribution systems

By Gabriele Accardo

On 19 April 2016, the Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt (the Court) made a request for a preliminary ruling  (available only in German) to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) about the legality of a ban imposed in the context of a selective distribution system to sell on online platforms.

The request stems from a dispute before the Court between Coty, a cosmetics manufacturer, and one of its authorized distributors, Parfümerie Akzente, whereby Coty claimed that, by selling perfumes on Amazon.de, Akzente infringed the terms and conditions of its selective distribution system that prohibited sales on such online platforms. The Court asked the CJEU to rule on the following questions:

  • Whether protection of a “luxury image” is a legitimate reason for a selective distribution system.
  • Whether it is permissible to impose on distributors an outright ban on sales via third party platforms regardless of whether the distributor failed to meet legitimate quality criteria set by the manufacturer.
  • Whether a sales ban on internet platforms results in a restriction on “passive sales” to end users.

It is worth recalling here that the Vertical Guidelines state that the use of third party platforms by authorized distributors shall only be done in accordance with the “standards and conditions” agreed upon between the supplier and its distributors for the distributors’ use of the internet. Yet, it is not clear whether “the standards and conditions” only relate to quality issues of a website, or whether they can go as far as to prohibit the use of certain third party platforms (e.g. eBay or Amazon).

As it may be expected, the CJEU ruling will be particularly relevant beyond the specific case at stake.

A consistent approach on online sales is much needed across Europe. Interestingly though, even cases dealt with by the Federal Cartel Office and other German courts have shown somewhat divergent approaches vis-à-vis online sales restrictions imposed by well-known brands.

For instance, two German courts adopted a rather lenient approach holding that manufacturers (Amer Sports and Scout-Schulranzen) could legitimately prohibit their distributors from reselling products through auction websites (such as eBay), insofar as such a restriction would amount to a quality requirement related to internet sales, while distributors would remain free to sell online using other means than auction websites.

More recently, instead, the Federal Cartel Office has investigated Asics’ and Adidas’ selective distribution systems, which restricted sales on online marketplaces on their retailers. While Asics has modified its selective distribution system in compliance with the prescriptions of the Federal Cartel Office, Adidas, instead, has challenged the authority’s decision before the court.

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