I’ve been using the internet for something like 12 years now. I remember the very first time I sat down to try it out. My brother in law had a PC connected to the net and I asked to have a go; I sat down in front of whatever search engine he used then and thought “what on earth do I actually look at?” Before Maddy was born we were connected at home too, fairly late to the party in some respects. It made sense and became useful fairly quickly; when I was a very little girl, my mum had had a ZX81 and I so wanted to be able to use it but programming seemed such a stupid thing to me. I sat at it and typed:-
“show me a deer”
“A deer has four legs”
“A deer is a mammal”
And so on. In vain did my mum try to explain to my 8 year old self that computers needed to be told in commands they understood, in maths terms and picture blocks and bits of code.
“That’s stupid,” I said. “Someone should make it so it understands words and can show you what you want to know. Someone should make it so that when you ask a computer something, it connects to other ones and finds the thing you want.”
Wise words, oh small one. And of course, tucked in the bowels of universities across the world, people already were. But at the time, it seemed a million miles away from anything that humble first home computer could ever achieve.
Time marches on to 2003, when I decided to set up an online business selling Hama Beads. Internet retail was still in its extremely early days. There was eBay, but no out of the box shop software to be easily had, little in the way of payment options and no major retailers had an online presence to lend credence to the whole thing. Internet retail was seen as potentially seedy at best and downright dangerous at worst.
“No one will ever buy online rather than going to shops,” people said.
“I think they will,” I answered and so, with the help of my friend Jax who wrote me a picture-less, description-less order form, I set up a small business. And, oh my, people came. I don’t think I ever had less than 2 orders a day, right from the very start. Right up to perhaps 2008, I still struggled to persuade distributors to let me sell their products as an online only store. No one felt it was meaningful or could work. Now, the tables have turned; distributors are still cagey but for the opposite reason that online is too successful and hard to control, driving prices down and highstreet retailers into meltdown.
When I was first buying and selling on the internet, mostly through eBay, it was very normal to send a cheque or wait to receive a cheque. But those were very different days; back then people were mostly pathetically grateful if an online transaction went well, whereas now people expect online to be quick, easy and hitch free – and actually, they expect more from online retailers than they do from a shop. Trading Standards laws actually back this up, with rules that are weighted so heavily in the favour of the customer that they are quite unfair at times. I noticed perhaps the biggest shift in the perception of online retail last year and the year before, when heavy snow hit the country in the run up to Christmas. People who didn’t want to do their last minute shopping out in the cold, or who couldn’t get to town for snow, turned to last minute online instead. Then they were furious when the same snow meant that deliveries couldn’t actually get through to them, as if somehow people who can sell at the click of a button, can also deliver with the click of one.
If only we could; I would have killed for a fleet of weather-proofed fairies!
It’s a huge change that where once online purchasing was seen as a risk, now it is seen as the fall back, guaranteed option. The one that will work when getting in the car and going to a real bricks and mortar shop is too hard or too difficult to achieve.
Some things don’t change. Back in the beginning, when online payment options were limited, we struggled manfully with a system called Nochex, which took card payments for us. It couldn’t take credit cards and had a daily limit. Paypal improved that and also the fear that some people (and retailers) had about entering and holding card details. But it was expensive then and it did nothing for the people who couldn’t bring themselves to enter their card details online at all, not even into the Paypal website. Although we’ve moved on to traditional merchant accounts alongside Paypal, nothing has fully solved that trust problem so far. Increasingly people do understand the internet and do understand that a padlock symbol means a safe purchasing environment, that Paypal is a protected sale and that card companies will generally deal properly with fraud anyway. But not everyone is comfortable and for them, especially as cheques become more problematic and expensive for retailers, an easy payment option has been harder to achieve. Finding some online payment solutions that work for customers who want to insulate themselves fully against potential difficulty online is essential. We still take many telephone orders a day, from people of all ages, who simply prefer to talk to a human and hand over their details verbally.
We’re heading in the direction of having been an online retailer for 10 years now; it seems incredible when I look back and see how much has changed and what the impact of the internet has been on the rest of the retail world. I can’t wait, albeit with trepidation, to see what another 10 years brings.