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.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.