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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage