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Flirting with other singles online or arranging a quick date via smartphone is nothing unusual anymore. Many people use the Internet to arrange their love lives the same way they would to buy a new pair of shoes or book a holiday.
According to online dating industry estimates, more than 11 million users regularly visit dating websites – attracting ever more service providers to the hotly contested German market.
Currently, more than 2,500 dating sites are competing for clients in German-speaking countries. And they offer something for everyone, from long-term relationships to casual affairs. There are sites catering to single parents, disabled people, farmers, seniors, heavy metal fans, especially tall people, as well as the especially small - the list goes on and on.
Last year, the launch of the (mostly) free dating app, Tinder, caused a stir in Germany. With a single swipe of the screen, users can like or pass by potential partners in the area. The concept is particularly popular with younger users. Several copycats are already on the market.
It's putting pressure on the sector, which, following the boom years between 2003 and 2011, is now on more of a consolidation course. Dating sites bring in about 186 million euros a year in total, according to Pamela Moucha from the dating service comparison site singleboersen-vergleich.de. The majority of the turnover is generated by a handful of big players such as Parship and Elitepartner. Moucha says they are unlikely to be threatened by a free model, like Tinder, because their users are typically looking for long-term relationships, not casual hook-ups.
"We're actually glad that Tinder exists because it attracts the younger target group and introduces them to online dating," said Jost Schwaner, CEO of Elitepartner, part of the Burda subsidiary Tomorrow Focus.
On consolidation course
The Holtzbrinck Digital holding, part of the Holtzbrinck publishing group, is retreating from the market, however. A few weeks ago, it announced that it was selling Parship to the British company, Oakley Capital. It said it had decided to focus on science, education, and books. But the decision is also being seen as evidence that the online dating sector has become more difficult.
A spokeswoman for Parship said that the company continues to see great potential. "Thanks to Oakley, we can realize our plans for further growth and strengthen our market position," she said.
The sector continues to be plagued by reports about scams being carried out via dating sites, however. Scam artists create fake profiles on dating platforms to get in touch with potential victims, earn their trust, and then steal their money.
The fine print
Some potential clients are steering clear of dating platforms because of their business conditions. Hamburg's office for consumer protection, for example, is receiving an increasing number of complaints from customers who only wanted a free test subscription, but who stumbled into an expensive, long-term contract instead. Lawyer Julia Rehberg said the most common complaints are about retraction and cancellation rights. The consumer office has already issued warnings to several companies.
On the other hand, Britta from Lower Saxony has only had positive experiences. She was active on an online portal for several years, and not only found men to date, but also made friends. She eventually met the man she married on an Internet dating site. She found it helpful to meet him that way, rather than in a bar or club. At home, she could chat with him in peace, without any external influences. "I think you can use dating sites, but you just need to be careful about what you're doing," she said.