When we speak of parallel sales, we are referring to imports alongside those made by an 'official', i.e. territorially competent, importer[1]Parallel traders enter the market reserved for exclusive distributors, without having direct access to the supplier, which only supplies authorised dealers.

Parallel trade, over the years, has taken very diverse forms and has often allowed the emergence of 'alternative' trade networks, which have flanked the official ones set up by the manufacturer; sometimes they are fed by the exclusive distributors themselves, who, having purchased the goods from the manufacturer, find it cheaper to resell them to parallel traders, with whom they have established trade relations; other times, parallel traders procure the goods from retailers in another country, where market prices are lower.[2]

1. Is an exclusive sales system that blocks parallel distribution lawful?

EU legislation has been confronted with this phenomenon from the very beginning and has had to try to find a balancing between, on the one hand, the free trade in goods and, on the other hand, the commercial interests of individual producers to divide up the different European markets through the appointment of exclusive dealers. The Commission's approach has always been to allow manufacturers to create networks by appointing exclusive dealers, so that they could more easily manage the different European markets. The 'compromise' that was reached was to create a clear dividing line between the forms of exclusive 'open' distributionwhich are considered permissible in principle, and so-called 'closed' exclusivities, which are almost always considered unauthorised[3].

The first forms are characterised by the fact that the dealer obtains the right to be the only party to be supplied by the manufacturer in a given territory. In any case, the position which is granted to the latter is not a 'monopoly', since parallel importers, in the manner and within the limits which will be described below, may purchase goods from third parties (wholesalers or dealers in other areas), and then possibly also resell them in the dealer's exclusive territory.

In contrast, theexclusive 'closed' is characterised by the fact that the dealer is granted perfect territorial protection by imposing on all distributors in the network a prohibition not to resell to persons outside their area, and a further obligation to impose this prohibition on their purchasers as well, and so on.

This approach was taken in the (now distant) decision Grundig[4]which the Commission has never deviated from, where it was deemed contrary to the principles of the European single market, the absolute protection of dealers and the creation of closed exclusive distributions, through, for example[5]:

  • export ban imposed by suppliers on distributors;
  • supplying traders known for their resale activities outside the established areas;
  • price differentiation according to destination;
  • reduction or outright abolition of discounts to wholesalers who had made unwanted exports[6];
  • Reducing the quantities usually sold to wholesalers, with the aim of discouraging parallel exports.

The Court therefore held not only that distribution contracts with absolute territorial protection fall under the prohibition of theArticle 101(1) TFEUbut even that such agreements are prohibited solely on the basis of their restrictive object, without any market investigation being necessary to ascertain the effects such bans actually have on the market.

2. Regulation 330/2010: active and passive sales.

The Court's approach was also confirmed by the Regulation 330/2010on vertical sales. The Regulation, on the one hand, empowers market sharing through the granting of open exclusivity[7]On the other hand, Article 4(b) provides for the validity of contractual clauses imposing on importers the ban on active sales [8] (and not passive[9]) in the exclusive territory or to exclusive customers reserved for other distributors. Importantly, the exception is not limited to the prohibition of active sales in the exclusive territory, but also covers the ban on sales to exclusive customersthat is to say, that which the supplier reserves to itself, or has reserved for another purchaser.

The supplier, therefore, may not merely prohibit the distributor from making sales outside a zone or to a group of customers, since the prohibition, in order to be lawful, must relate to active sales in a zone or to customers exclusively reserved to a different distributor, or to the supplier itself.

The grantor may therefore prevent its exclusive dealers from taking initiatives aimed at conquering parts of the market in zones other than those assigned to them; in any event, the prohibition of out-of-zone sales may not be imposed for passive sales, i.e. the response to unsolicited orders from individual customers outside the exclusive zone.

3. Internet sales and the impact on parallel sales.

The phenomenon of parallel distribution certainly developed with the advent of Internet. The web being a platform that, by definition, can be visited "worldwide"has significantly increased the potential of individual links in the distribution chain to be visible (and thus sell) in territories exclusively reserved for other players (on this topic see Can a manufacturer prevent its distributors from selling online? Active sales, passive sales and geoblocking.).

Although there are substantial differences between sales online and sales offlineit can certainly be said that the principles set out in the preceding paragraph apply equally to both types of market. The powers and limits of the manufacturer to prohibit and direct the sales of its dealers are the same for traditional and electronic commerce: it will therefore be essential to understand, even in this context, the distinction between active and passive sales.

According to the Orientations of the Commission, the mere existence of an Internet site must in principle be regarded as a form of passive selling. Indeed, it reads:

"If a customer visits the Internet site of a distributor and contacts him, and if that contact results in a sale, including actual delivery, this is considered a passive sale. The same applies if a customer decides to be informed (automatically) by the distributor and this results in a sale. " [10]

Otherwise, it must be considered an active sale:

"Online advertising specifically targeted at certain customers [...]. Banners showing a territorial link on third party websites [...] and, in general, efforts to be found specifically in a particular territory or by a particular customer group constitutes active selling in that territory or to that customer group [including] the payment of a fee to a search engine or online advertising provider to present advertisements specifically to users located in a particular territory. "

The appreciable expansion of sales via the Internet has had the effect of opening up considerable space for intra-brand competition and parallel distribution, and this has certainly also been favoured by European case law, which tends to favour the use of this tool also by the supplier's dealers and intermediaries.

Indeed, following the rulings Pierre Fabre of 13.10.2011[11]an absolute prohibition on distributors from using the internet for the distribution of purchased goods is to be considered fundamentally impermissible. A limit to this dispositive power was imposed by the judgment of 6 December 2017 Coty Germany GmbH[12]where the Court clarified that in a system of selective distribution of luxury products, a manufacturer (in this case Coty) is authorised to impose a clause on its distributor allowing it to sell the products via internet, but on condition that this activity is carried out in such a way as to preserve the luxurious connotation of the products.

The most recent decision Guess of December 2018[13]in which the Commission fined the parent company EUR 40 million for imposing a ban on retailers selling contractual products via internet or any other electronic or computer system, without the prior written consent of Guess same.

Also linked to the Internet is the question - which would require much more in-depth study on its own - of whether a manufacturer can directly sell on a platform online products at lower prices than those recommended to their dealers. Indeed, the question arises whether such conduct can be considered contrary to the performance of the contract in good faith formerly Article 1375 of the Civil Code. Italian jurisprudence does not yet appear to have ruled on this matter; for the time being, we limit ourselves to recommending that this case be clearly and precisely provided for in the concession contract, since otherwise such conduct could give rise to very complex and burdensome disputes for both parties.[14]

4. Can parallel distribution be avoided by creating a selective distribution system?

One way to avoid the creation of parallel distribution could be the creation of a selective distribution network, since, in this type of distribution, the manufacturer can demand that its goods can only be purchased from certain intermediaries, who comply with the form and quality requirements imposed by the manufacturer (cf. Selective distribution. A brief overview: risks and benefits). It follows that, in a selective distribution system without loopholes, products do not come into the possession of intermediaries or commercial resellers who are not admitted to the network. (cf. The mixed system: when the manufacturer chooses to adopt both exclusive and selective distribution).

However, even this system has advantages, disadvantages and limitations; firstly, it can only be implemented for products high quality and technologically developed.[15]

In addition, Article 4 d) of the Regulation, however, provides for restrictions on the manufacturer's power of direction, which may not prevent the "cross-supplies between distributors within a selective distribution system, including distributors operating at different trading levels." This freedom for each member of the selective network to obtain supplies from other members without hindrance is the necessary counterpart to the exclusion of parallel distribution networks. The Orientations provide in paragraph 58 that:

"an agreement or concerted practice may not have as its direct or indirect object to prevent or restrict active or passive sales of the contract products between the selected distributors, who must remain free to purchase those products from other designated distributors in the network, operating at the same or a different level of trade. Selective distribution may therefore not be combined with vertical restraints aimed at forcing distributors to purchase the contract products exclusively from a particular source."

Last but not least, it is noted that, albeit in a selective distribution, "the producer may impose a no-see obligation on parties (other than end users) outside the network" formerly Article 4(b)(iii), very often in practice many manufacturers distribute 'selectively' only in the most important markets, while reserving a 'classical' system (i.e. through an exclusive importer) for the other zones. In such a case, the manufacturer may not impose a ban on passive sales, vis-à-vis resellers belonging to areas where the selective system does not exist, but only prohibit active sales under Article 4(b)(i).

However, this is without prejudice to the right of the producer, who has legitimately adopted a selective distribution system in order to protect the branded productsto take action against parallel distributors, whose resale methods are such as to damage the image of luxury and prestige - which the manufacturer seeks to defend precisely through the adoption of a selective distribution system - or in any case that there is a confusing effect as to the existence of a commercial link between the trademark owner and the unauthorised reseller. In this regard, we highlight two recent orders of the Court of Milan (cf. Online sales by unauthorised distributors. The Amazon, L'Oréal and Sisley cases). [16]


[1] See definition from Simone Online Dictionaries https://www.simone.it/newdiz/newdiz.php?action=view&id=736&dizionario=11

[2] On this point see Pappalardo, The Competition Law of the European Union, p. 403, 2018, UTET.

[3] On this point see Bortolotti, I contratti di distribuzione, p. 690, 2016, Wolters Kluwer.

[4] Decision Grundig-Costen, 23.9.1964.

[5] On this point see Pappalardo, The Competition Law of the European Union, p. 383, 2018, UTET.

[6] The Commission expressed its opinion in the case Distillers (1978), where the Commission emphasised the fact that rebates can be used to regulate export flows indirectly ".by providing that DCL's UK resellers who export spirits to other EEC countries are charged a different price to that charged when the spirits are resold for consumption on the domestic market, and by also reserving the price discounts only to sales of spirits for resale and consumption in the UK, restrict the freedom of those customers to resell the products in question in another EEC country (...).

The inapplicability of discounts to sales of spirits for export and the application of different prices to the same customers for spirits intended for export and those intended for consumption in the United Kingdom, constitute a clear attempt to prevent parallel imports from the UK into other EEC countries and therefore amount to an express export ban (n. 2, p. 25).

[7] Importantly, however, Regulation 330/2010, contrary to its predecessor 2790/1990, does not mention the "open" exclusivity clause, but it is "automatically" exempted on the basis of the principle of the lawfulness of all clauses not expressly prohibited, laid down in Article 2 of the Regulation.

[8] Le Commission Guidelines (LGC or Orientations) in paragraph 51, active sales are defined as: 'active contact with individual customers for instance by mail, including by sending unsolicited e-mails, or by visits to customers; or active contact with a specific group of customers, or customers located in a specific territory through advertisements in the media or via the Internet or other promotions specifically aimed at that group of customers or customers in that territory. Advertising or promotions that are only attractive to the buyer if they (also) reach a specific group of customers or customers in a specific territory are considered active sales to that group of customers or customers in that territory."

[9] Le LGCPoint 51 defines passive sales as: 'the response to unsolicited orders from individual customers, including the delivery of goods or the provision of services to such customers. Passive sales are advertising actions or promotions of a general nature that reach customers within the (exclusive) territories or customer groups of other distributors, but which are a reasonable way to reach customers outside those territories or customer groups, for instance to reach customers within one's own territory. General advertising or promotions are considered a reasonable way to reach such customers if it is attractive for the buyer to make such investments even if they do not reach customers within the (exclusive) territory or the (exclusive) customer group of other distributors

[10] LGC No. 52

[11] C-439/09, Pierre Fabre of 13.10.2011.

[12] C-230/16, Coty Germany of 6.12.2017.

[13] https://www.bbmpartners.com/news/La-decisione-Guess-della-Commissione-Europea-Una-prima-analisi

[14] Please refer to Dr. Thume's "Paralleler Online-Vertrieb des Herstellers im Spannungsfeld seiner Dispositionsfreiheit und Treuepflicht', Betriebs-Berater, 15.2018, p. 770.

[15] This means that the application of such a system to product types that are not "adequate'", entails the risk of a (albeit hypothetical) withdrawal of the exemption by the Commission, i.e. by the Competition Authority, for agreements with effects exclusively on the internal market. On this topic see Pappalardo, Il diritto della concorrenza dell'Unione Europea, 2018, p. 405, UTET.

[16] Orders of 19 November 2018 and 18 December 2018 of the Court of Milan. https://sistemaproprietaintellettuale.it/notizie/angolo-del-professionista/13754-distribuzione-selettiva-di-cosmetici-di-lusso-il-tribunale-di-milano-chiarisce-i-presupposti-per-l-esclusione-del-principio-dell-esaurimento-del-marchio.html