The trouble with the internet: people still too different

E-commerce utopia remains out of reach.

The internet knows no borders. That’s the way most people tend to view it, at least. But as online commerce comes of age, this utopian view seems increasingly naive.

As an increasing number of businesses look to take advantage of the web as a medium for commerce, not just communication, many of them are finding themselves frustrated by the fact that… well, people are different.

The recent Globalocity eCommerce conference saw several hundred retailers, Silicon Valley whizz-kids, and finance experts gather to discuss all things online shopping.

At the event I spent some considerable talking to people from a number of successful US retailers – department stores, fashion brands, even travel agencies - many of whom are very well-established global brands. It was clear that many of them were struggling with the fact that launching a globally-accessible eCommerce portal has not opened the flood gates for hoardes of overseas consumers, desperate to buy US consumer goods.

What is stopping them? Surely given the opportunity everyone would prefer to shop at US department stores, right? Perhaps... But they a good reason, and more to the point, they need to be able to pay for their goods in a way that suits them. The newsflash? Not everyone in the world has a credit card.

So, it begins to become apparent, that rolling out an eCommerce strategy is not really all that different to setting up a physical presence in new markets - minus the some substantial property and staffing costs, of course.

Businesses still need to invest in the market - understanding their consumers, not just in terms of what they wish to buy, but how they wish to buy it.

For those US retailers at Globalocity, the markets really getting the saliva flowing were Latin America (Brazil in particular), Russia and continental Europe. But frustrations abound when it comes to actually getting people to pay for things.

Anyone who has spent any time looking at the Brazilian retail sector will know that consumer spending habits can only be described as unique.

Having the ability to pay for goods in installments is essential in Brazil - people  expect to be able to spread their payment for everything (even basic goods like groceries) over a long periods of time. And a payment system - the Boleto Bancario - has been developed specifically to meet this requirement. The challenge now, though, is replicating that online.

And, of course, it is not just Brazil that requires a bespoke solution. Cash looms large in Europe and arguably more so in Russia. And of course, cash has no place in the e-commerce ecosystem. And yet again, retailers who think that offering customers the ability to pay by credit card is sufficient,  come a cropper, and quickly find out that alternatives have to be found.

The obvious alternative - cash on delivery - creates problems for the retailer, who has to ship the goods before receipt of payment, but new companies are developing neater systems, most notably the Qiwi terminals that enable Russian consumers to change cash into electronic money.

In short, every market has its quirks, and even in e-commerce, national borders are still very much in place.

James Ratcliff is Group Editor of  Cards and Payments at VRL Financial News.

Photograph: Getty Images

James Ratcliff is Group Editor of  Cards and Payments at VRL Financial News.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.