Blinded by tech, are UK businesses forgetting the basics?

Common sense still not an optional app.

 

The nation’s “bricks and mortar” retailers are beginning to show cracks, with vast numbers looking to set up their stalls online. In fact, the UK retail industry is embracing e-commerce quicker and more successfully than any other Western European countries. But are they missing a trick by deserting the high street?

The UK has indeed taken the lead with innovation and mobile commerce is beginning to kick off: once the smartphone  was invented we had to find a use for it and this is how we started ordering Android-delivered pizza, i-phone delivered pairs of shoes or phone delivered music.

So, whether it’s a country of tech-savvies or a country with too much rain, the mere fact is that no one in Europe has done better in convincing people to shop online.

However, it’s time for the downside. Turning the pages of a couple of reports and chatting with retail, payment and regulatory gurus, it turns out that, in the rush to the web-mirage, UK businesses are forgetting something: “The basics of business”.

This is the conclusion offered by the CEO of a leading payments services provider a few days ago, in front of very full English breakfast.

The very same breakfast that went the wrong way after hearing the staggering number of e-companies, including big players, that are putting security issues linked to customers’ information right at the bottom of the agenda, or just forgetting about it altogether.

Twenty per cent of businesses surveyed by payments company Sage Pay said they are not even sure whether they are compliant or not. They don’t know if they are managing their clients’ data according to the law. Names, addresses, credit card details? Yes, maybe, we don’t really know.

It doesn’t get any more refreshing when it comes to certainties: some 20 per cent know - they are really, really sure - they are not compliant. And another third is convinced it is not important after all, despite the fact that breaches could tarnish the reputation of a business forever.

Even when focusing on the revenue side of the story not everyone seems to get it right.

Take HMV, for example: was it simply the latest high-street retailer to lose out to the power of the web and of new technologies? The truth is that the music store had been on the web for many years before being forced to go into administration.

It did jump on the right tool, but kept a bricks and mortar mentality. When shopping on the web, instead, the same clients become different clients, with speed being the first commandment. When the structure is big and heavy the jump has proved to be more risky.

What should the rules be then? The recipe for success can only come from finding where failure hides.

It’s best to start with the toughest moment of the shopping experience: paying. The majority of customers who visit the website drop out after landing on the payment page, namely after having shown the clear intention of wanting to buy the goods.

Why? Read the data and you’ll get the answer: the longer it takes to pay and the greater number of payment pages you’ve got, the greater the probability the client will get tired and leave. Some websites use up to four pages: worse than queuing ten minutes at Costa.

There are some ego-problems as well: many small merchants think it’s a smart idea to personalise the payment page with their brand. However, if your logo makes your aunty look famous, it will be difficult to convince the customer he can safely give out his data. Better leave the job of reassuring the client to the payments brands. Visa, MasterCard or PayPal inspire more trust than a beloved but unknown aunty Grace, after all.

It doesn’t end here: surprisingly, many small and medium merchants are not taking advantage of social networks. Figures show they work more than the pay-per-click strategy to drive traffic but not enough businesses have an embedded payment feature in the payment page. On the opposite side, a good number of them haven’t got a Facebook page at all.

The moral is ready to be home delivered: new technologies are there, but the human brain and a fine instinct are not an optional app. Business is – and will remain – business.

Don't forget the high street. Photograph: Getty Images

Sara Perria is the Assistant Editor for Banking and Payments, VRL Financial News

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.