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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I dined behind the Houses of Parliament in my sexually connected foursome

My wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple. We did not always check the significance of the date. 

I am self-employed and find that working from home, setting your own schedule, the days generally blur into each other, with weekends holding no significance, and public holidays, when those who are employed in factories, offices or shops get time off, meaning nothing. I am often surprised to go out and find the streets empty of traffic because it is some national day of observance, such as Christmas, that I wasn’t aware of. I find myself puzzled as to why the shops are suddenly full of Easter eggs or pancake batter.

Growing up in a Communist household, we had a distinct dislike for this kind of manufactured marketing opportunity anyway. I remember the time my mother tried to make me feel guilty because I’d done nothing for her on Mother’s Day and I pointed out that it was she who had told me that Mother’s Day was a cynical creation of the greetings card monopolies and the floral industrial complex.

Valentine’s Day is one of those I never see coming. It’s the one day of the year when even the worst restaurants are completely booked out by couples attempting to enjoy a romantic evening. Even those old-fashioned cafés you’ll find still lurking behind railway stations and serving spaghetti with bread and butter will tell you there’s a waiting list if you leave it late to reserve a table.

In the late 1980s my wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple, he a writer and she a TV producer. One particular place we liked was a restaurant attached to a 1930s block of flats, near the Houses of Parliament, where the endless corridors were lined with blank doors, behind which you sensed awful things happened. The steel dining room dotted with potted palm trees overlooked a swimming pool, and this seemed terribly sophisticated to us even if it meant all your overpriced food had a vague taste of chlorine.

The four of us booked to eat there on 14 February, not realising the significance of the date. We found at every other table there was a single couple, either staring adoringly into each other’s eyes or squabbling.

As we sat down I noticed we were getting strange looks from our fellow diners. Some were sort of knowing, prompting smiles and winks; others seemed more outraged. The staff, too, were either simpering or frosty. After a while we realised what was going on: it was Valentine’s Day! All the other customers had assumed that we were a sexually connected foursome who had decided to celebrate our innovative relationship by having dinner together on this special date.

For the four of us, the smirking attention set up a strange dynamic: after that night it always felt like we were saying something seedy to each other. “Do you want to get together on Sunday?” I’d say to one of them on the phone, and then find myself blushing. “I’ll see if we can fit it in,” they’d reply, and we would both giggle nervously.

Things became increasingly awkward between us, until in the end we stopped seeing them completely. 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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