Etsy: A Launchpad for Global Entrepreneurs

Back in 2008 I wrote about Etsy and how I had seen it showcased at the Future of Web Apps Conference to a crowd of disbelieving geeks who viewed it as ‘just another Ebay’ and didn’t quite understand how it could have obtained its exponential growth just through word of mouth.  At that point in November ’07 buyers had spent $4.3 million purchasing 300,000 items – by September 2013 these figures had risen to 5,558,230 products being sold with a value of $109.5 million – not a bad rate of growth in anyone’s books.

Etsy has grown to become one of the key platforms of the collaborative economy – a phrase which didn’t really exist just 5 years ago – and their 2 latest moves are indicative of their determination to help push the global collaborative economy along its way:

A Launchpad for Entrepreneurs

Few could have predicted 5 years ago that the site would be being used as a serious launchpad for entrepreneurs.  The original concept of the site being only for individuals creating and selling handmade items has been increasingly challenged over time as many on makers on Etsy are converting from being just keen hobbyists making small amounts of cash while holding down full-time jobs, to creating full time businesses.  It has now reached a point where Etsy recently changed its guidelines to allow sellers to apply for approval to sell items made in collaboration with manufacturers:

On Etsy, a manufacturer is simply any outside business a seller uses to produce their items. A factory with 20 employees can be a manufacturer, but so can a two-person sewing workshop.”

Austerity may be biting but it’s the sharing economy and social platforms like Etsy which are enabling many to bite back.

Breaking down Cultural and Language Barriers

Back in the early 1990’s when websites began I was running a translation agency in London working with companies globally.  I envisioned that if every company worldwide was to have a website which could be viewed globally then every website would have to be multilingual to capture each company’s new prospects… Common sense don’t you think? So I set up a multilingual website division to provide just that.  Unfortunately the world wasn’t quite as forward thinking as I predicted…

So it was with a wry smile that I noticed Etsy’s announcement last week that it is introducing onsite translation tools that allow sellers to easily engage with potential customers. When either party sends a message in a language that is different to the recipient’s default setting, a new ‘Translate to’ hyperlink will appear enabling the correspondence to be translated into 9 languages including English, German, French, Dutch, Russian and Portuguese.

For someone like myself whose lifetime focus has been to break down language barriers and get the world working as one these are both seriously cool moves.  It will be fascinating to watch how these impact upon Etsy’s global success.



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Business as a Social Object, the Shadow Economy and WOMnets

“Could business become nothing more than a social object, and individuals would collaborate via social networks, doing what businesses used to do” 

I put out this idea when I spoke at the Patchwork Elephant Conference about what the future could hold for social business.  Here’s a more detailed explanation:

18 months ago I wrote about the underlying shifts I could see happening towards a new social ecosystem with collaboration as its key.  I then focussed on the emergence of community based funding platforms like Kickstarter, the estimated increase in the use of the black economy and how governments were pushing to eliminate cash in favour of online transactions which could be monitored.  I’ve been revisiting those thoughts now, following on from work assignments and research I have been involved in over the last 18 months, and here are some more thoughts:

The Online Collaborative Economy

Funding based platforms: By May 2013 Kickstarter had passed 100,000 successfully launched projects with 44% successfully funded thanks to $535 million in crowdsourcing. Crowdfunding is here to stay.

Peer to Peer lending: These companies although have been around a while are enjoying a leap in popularity: “Andy Haldane, director of financial stability at the Bank of England, reckons that peer-to-peer websites – which link those who want to borrow with individuals who want a return on their cash – are becoming increasingly economically important.” comments The Telegraph.  Indeed, with Google investing $125 million in Lending Club, valuing it at a staggering $1.55 billion, this is an area set to grow exponentially.

Online currencies: Bitcoin is the increasingly popular cryptocurrency where the creation and transfer of Bitcoins is based on an open-source cryptographic protocol that is independent of any central authority.  It has however recently fallen under the eyes of the government who shuttered Silk Road, an online black market used to buy and sell illegal drugs with Bitcoins.

Crowds become the company:  Platforms which host companies where crowds become the company (essentially crowds doing what businesses used to do) are on the rise.  The room sharing company Airbnb and car pooling company Lyft are 2 prime examples of companies which are economically challenging the hotel and taxi industries.  Both have recently come to the attention of US regulators who view them as companies whose reigns need to be tightened.   Airbnb is currently fighting a subpoena from the New York Attorney General who is seeking information on more than 15,000 tenants who rent out their rooms on the popular website stating that they are breaking a 2010 law that prohibits renters from subletting their room for less than 30 days. 

3D printing and nanotechnology:   3D printing is here and if you happen to live near York, is available in an Asda near you .  3D printing and other new emerging ‘minituarisation of manufacturing’ tools are the “today” bit of the 40 year journey to nanotechnology which I discussed at the conference.  Although still in its nascent stage the promise of being able to create personalised products yourself or locally (from virtually nothing – for virtually nothing in the case of the proposed ‘personal nanofactories’) rather than relying on mass produced factory goods is perhaps not that far off – and the concept of needing neither shops nor factories suddenly doesn’t seem quite so strange at all.

Here are the beginnings of whole business structures being redefined with individuals collaborating via social networks and relying on trusted parties bypassing traditional hierarchical capitalist models.  Platforms are used by crowds to do what businesses used to do.

As I pointed out at the conference let’s analyse what this could mean for business in the future:

Screen Shot 2013-10-14 at 17.22.42

  • Production: whether goods were made at home locally on demand it could mean that large scale manufacturing would be knocked out.
  • Transport: if there were no goods to be moved around the transport industry would be under threat
  • Consumer facing businesses selling goods: would have serious problems
  • Sales & marketing: what for if there were no goods to flog
  • Business support services: would dwindle
  • Finance: a lot of the current financial system is based on betting on firms

In other words:

“Could business become nothing more than a social object and individuals would collaborate via social networks, doing what businesses used to do.”

Now I’d like to take it a little bit further…  Let’s talk The Shadow Economy which I spoke about 18 months ago.

Where may you find this new economy in the future?  In the Shadows?

The offline world has always had a shadow economy and as predicted its popularity is on the rise.  As unemployment has risen economists now estimate that the income generated by the underground economy is the US could be $2 trillion and Spain’s illicit economy is estimated to be worth 20% of the country’s GDP, according to a new report by Spain’s Foundation for Financial Studies (FEF) reports The Atlantic.

The offline shadow economy has always been difficult for governments to track and until recently much online collaboration where people have made money has managed to stay ‘below the radar’ of authorities.  Online collaboration has for most never felt at least like working ‘within the black market’ so to speak – until a time is reached when governments take note and step in as we have seen recently with Bitcoin and Airbnb.  The fact that all those who have registered to let out their rooms via Airbnb are now facing the possibility of having all their details handed over to the government because of the subpoena should be a wake up call to everyone involved in any form of online activities.

What is a WOMnet?

It is at this point that you wonder exactly how these networks could evolve…  As the collaborative economy continues to build will we be happy to accept being tracked and monitored knowing that every small thing we are involved in online is recorded for posterity?  Or could this lead to a deeper online Shadow Economy developing away from the ‘State Controlled Web’?

The obvious thing would be to create alternative internets and private spaces well away from the existing Web.  Unsurprisingly the beginnings are already emerging with alternative internets and new ways of using the internet appearing.  This also ties in closely with the VRM concept of tools being created for individuals to manage and control their own data, allowing access only to those to whom they give permission.

Perhaps in the future we will all have the ability to create and control our own private internets and collaboration spaces away from the main ‘internet’ and, just as in the offline Shadow Economy, rely on Word of Mouth to spread the word for us – ‘WOMnets’ so to speak.  We would then of course need to emply WOMbles to clean up any loose digital tracks that the everyday folk leave behind… :-)


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Thinking the unthinkable with the Social Business Patchwork Elephant

I helped host the Social Business Patchwork Elephant Revisited last Friday. The first one was hosted 3 years ago when the term ‘Social Business’ was barely known and certainly didn’t have its very own industry as it pretty much does now. This just shows how things can change so rapidly. Yet when you’re in the industry itself it can feel sometimes as if things aren’t moving fast at all and it’s not until things are put into their proper perspective that you realise just how far things have progressed.

With this in mind I gave a small introduction about the possible future of social and business and how if you take an idea that can seem totally unthinkable and unacceptable it can become thinkable given the right ‘window’ of time. This is based on the Overton Window theory that there is a narrow ‘window’ when a range of ideas will be accepted by the public.  If you take a ‘way out there’ idea which appears completely unthinkable, then push it as far as you possibly can then sometimes, given the right ‘window’, that idea eventually becomes thinkable and acceptable.

Here are 2 concepts which could be possible in 40 years time. They may seem pretty unthinkable – but can they become truly thinkable if pushed to their extremes?

What if businesses became nothing more than a social object – that’s to say that social networks would be used simply to coordinate all the activities that businesses used to do?”

“Nanotechnology will destroy the present social and economic system – because it will become pointless” (James Burke on Radio 4 PM, August 2013)

James Burke’s Predictions

Let’s consider James Burke’s prediction for a minute. He was a famous BBC reporter on Tomorrow’s World in the 1970’s and chief presenter for the BBC’s coverage of the first moon landing in 1969.  In 1973 he was asked to predict what life would be like in 20 years time – that’s 1993. You have to remember that back in 1973 the only computers around filled floors, there were very few. There was no internet, no email, no mobile phones.

He predicted that:

• Storage of personal information in databanks would be accepted – at least by the young
• People would realise that the sharing of information would help organise society better
• Computer aided learning systems would provide children with their own plug in superteacher
• 300,000 computer terminals would be in use by the year 2000 providing forecasts on the effects of management decision making

There were in fact 146 million computers by 2000! His timescales were a bit inaccurate but he did well. In 1973 most people would have viewed these predictions as completely unthinkable.

So when Burke suggests that “Nanotechnology will destroy the present social and economic system – because it will become pointless” it may sound unthinkable now – but let’s think about it…
Burke believes that it may be possible that in 40 years time we could all own personal nanofactories which could reproduce stuff on a molecular level. It should be possible to make virtually anything – for virtually nothing.  All we would need, he says, is
air, water, dirt and acetylene gas (for carbon) and we could manufacture virtually everything – from gold, food, our utilities, or even a house.

We could, he suggests, become entirely autonomous!

This does sound really unthinkable – but perhaps this isn’t quite so far out there as it sounds. Take the current trends of everything being smaller, cheaper and networked – like 3d printing and internet of things and push this out over 40 years… Machines are already working at a molecular level – the University of Manchester has recently built one which they’re planning to modify to build penicillin.

The Endgame: Radical Abundance

So what’s the endgame with all this? Radical Abundance! The latest new new thing that’s just about to hit us and is being pushed not just by Burke but by others like Eric Drexler too.

So assuming that we could produce everything we needed, what could this mean for business? Here’s a possible snap shot:

Production: whether goods were made at home or locally on demand it could mean that large scale manufacturing would be knocked out.
Transport: if there were no goods to be moved around the transport industry would be under threat
Consumer facing businesses selling goods: would have serious problems
Sales & marketing: what for if there were no goods to flog
Business support services: would dwindle
Finance: a lot of the current financial system is based on betting on firms

Cities: What For?

Every major technology shift has made huge impacts to the way we live. Cities were after all only created for people to come together to trade goods and, as Burke points out, for workers to live close to factories. So could we, as Burke suggests, really end up living in smaller communities if we prefer? After all, contact at distance could easily be covered by 3d holography – made possible with nanotechnology…

Is this all becoming thinkable to you yet?

Governments: Why bother?

Burke though continues to push the unthinkable to it’s extreme suggesting that there would be no need for governments because they are only there to protect you and redistribute wealth in society. It could be, he says, that we would have no more need for social institutions as it’s all based on the scarcity of things. If we were able to produce everything ourselves why would you need them? For me this is taking the unthinkable to extremes – way out of the ‘window’ of the acceptable in my head!

But when looking at the original unthinkable concept:

Will business become a social object – that’s to say that social networks would be there to coordinate all the activities businesses used to do

perhaps now this thought has become a bit more thinkable than unthinkable to you!

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The Social Business Patchwork Elephant Revisited

Three years ago, in Social Media Week London, we took an in depth look at the emerging Social Business world. We called it a “patchwork elephant” as it is very large, in the room, but it’s hard to see the whole thing!

This year we are doing a review (see here to book) – next Friday, September 27th from 1 to 5.30 pm, at the Hub, Westminster. We will look at what lessons we can learn from the last 3 years since our first event, what is happening today, and where it is all going.

This event is for people interested in discussing the evolution, current state, and future of Social Business, We will discuss issues such as the implementation challenges it will face, how it integrates with existing systems today, which industries and parts of companies are likely to be early adopters, what is the impact on how work is organised and done, and what is still required for it to succeed.

The session will feature talks, Q&A sessions and case studies from companies, consultants and academics working in various parts of the Social Business value chain.

The aim is to leave attendees with a good appreciation of where social business came from and where it is today, and the main opportunities – and threats – going forward. For those already working in the area it will give visibility of more of the whole area from a variety of other viewpoints. Also the event is an opportunity to meet like minded interesting people from the London/UK scene, we will repair to a pub nearby afterwards!.

Our star-studded speaker line up is, in strict alphabetical order:

- Will McInness, Nixon McInnes

- Mat Morrison, Star Media

- Anne-Marie McEwan, The Smart Work Company

- Luis Suarez, IBM

- Neil Usher, WorkEssence

Twitter Hashtag is #smwsocbiz

The event is sponsored by

The Patchwork Elephant Crew are:

- Janet Parkinson, Technotropolis

- Alan Patrick, Broadsight

- David Terrar, D2C

We look forward to seeing you there!

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July 2013 Links of Interest

Links of interest:

Social Business   Social Media/Marketing   Technology   The Future City

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Where to work or not to work – that is the question (well, this week anyway)…

Watching the debate this week around Yahoo and its ‘leaked’ (?) memo that it is to pull all employees back into the office and not allow them to work from home from June 2013 has been pretty intense stuff.  A nice bit of PR of course which has got everyone debating with 2 clear camps forming. Either you agree that homeworking is more productive and is the clear ‘future of work’ and see Yahoo as disappearing back into the Stone Age, or you believe that the way forward for the sake of innovation is to keep all employees on site.

Not wanting to add to the throng particularly but finding myself writing this anyway *sigh* I’d like to put a third mediocre possibility out there and suggest that in some instances working from home does work, while in other instances it just doesn’t.

From a business perspective (which, in  my view is the only one to have) having workers based at home or scattered around in ‘hubs’ can have advantages including less time commuting unnecessarily, the opportunity for employees to focus on a specific project without interruptions from coworkers (KPI’s can be more focused on output rather than length of time spent on a project) and the advantage of utilising quality workers who aren’t in the immediate vicinity of the company office.  There are numerous reports out there which back this claim.

Yet it is not always the case that working from home works as one ex-Yahoo employee has admitted, saying that Yahoo was right to make the decision as in their view working from home led to ‘people slacking off like crazy’.  Other studies also show that although people who work at home are significantly more productive it is trickier to be more innovative.  As Dr John Sullivan notes:

“… telecommuting unfortunately reduces innovation. And because innovation brings in much higher profits than the traditional goal of corporate efficiency, many firms are now learning the value of emphasizing innovation as a primary strategic business goal.”

He also comments how face to face interaction increases collaboration, competition and energy, and how it increases learning and helps break down functional silos.

Companies like Google and Yahoo where innovation is at the core of their business therefore need to keep employees physically together and Google have known this for a long time – they only allow employees to work from home on a case by case basis.  But for Google it’s not just about keeping people together in one spot it’s how they interact and work within their environment – that for them is a crucial key to innovation.  Right now Google in the process of designing a new 100,000-square-metre campus for San Francisco Bay, California where the focus is on how people work as Dezeen magazine notes :

Google gathered masses of information on how its employees work and what kind of spaces they want. “We started not with an architectural vision but with a vision of the work experience,” according to David Radcliffe, a civil engineer who oversees Google’s property. “So we designed this from the inside out …  No employee will be more than a two-and-a-half minute walk from any other to encourage a “casual collision of the workforce” and the spread of ideas throughout the company, said Radcliffe.”

The bottom line is that it is the bottom line which counts and Yahoo has a lot to do to catch up with its competitors.  So why the fuss?  After all companies such as Bank of America, for example, which once allowed remote working, decided late last year to require employees in certain roles to come back to the office also.  It seems to me that the CEO of Yahoo has made the right business decision…

But wait! How could I forget?  The final element to the puzzle which got people hot footing it to their blogs…   The CEO of Yahoo is a woman who recently had a baby and returned to work 2 weeks after its birth and is therefore seen by many as not supporting women by not supporting home working…. The scandal and extra PR hype that has caused!  Well, what more can I say but ‘congratulations Marissa’ – a job well performed by a person with a job to do.  For women to prove they mean business then let’s not be held hostage to emotion and be sure to use all the tricks of the trade why don’t you ;)

Of course the ultimate twist in the tail would be if once this hype died down Marissa then sent out a further memo stating that as from June 2013 there was to be free onsite childcare facilities for all employees.  Now that would flick the sentiment score…  We could all then run off to our blogs and debate the productivity of those working in the office with the kids onsite (no worries of childcare – luxury of sharing a coffee and free cooked food with your colleagues while working) versus productivity of working at home (worries of childcare, picking up and dropping off and having coffee and cook your own food all alone)…

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Opening a Can of Data

Would you be happy for the world to know your salary details?  Many of us in the UK would baulk at the merest thought of the idea while in other countries revealing this data is the norm.  What is it that makes attitudes so different and how can anyone truly judge what’s the right line to be drawn between privacy and transparency?  Should it be up to governments and companies to dictate or are we in the UK sliding towards a culture where this information is no longer deemed to be private – and what could be the implications?

The UK government has been forging strongly ahead with its transparency and Open Data policies.  Current transparency guidelines state that the release of its data is to bring data into the open so that everyone can see whether it is delivering good value for money.  Back in 2010 the government for the first time released data of civil servants earning more than £150,000/annum.  At the time 24 of the 300 civil servants named requested that their identities not be released but as the Local Government Chronicle reported this was quashed.  Later that same year civil servants earning over £82,900 were named – yet plans to name individual civil servants earning more than £58,000 were scrapped after concerns were raised about privacy.  As the BBC noted at the time:

“Writing for the ConservativeHome website, Francis Maude said: “After careful consultation with officials across Whitehall, we concluded that the balance between transparency and privacy would best be struck by not releasing this personal information.”

Why was it seen as correct that the line between transparency and privacy be drawn at this level?

Compare this Norway where anyone can go to the mainstream newspaper Aftenposten’s website and check out the tax list which reveals a large proportion of the country’s tax payers’ details including their annual income, tax paid, value of investments and date of birth. For those in the UK this would seem a gross intrusion into privates lives so why have Norwegians accepted this – or perhaps more to the point, did they ever have any option?

It may well have all begun with the deeply rooted Norwegian culture which prescribes egalitarianism, collectivism and conformity as values to be protected and practiced by its citizens – Janteloven (Jante Law).  Although unwritten it is a set of principles which the poet Aksel Sandemose laid out in words in 1933:

  1. Don’t think you’re anything special.
  2. Don’t think you’re as much as us.
  3. Don’t think you’re wiser than us.
  4. Don’t convince yourself that you’re better than us.
  5. Don’t think you know more than us.
  6. Don’t think you are more than us.
  7. Don’t think you are good at anything.
  8. Don’t laugh at us.
  9. Don’t think anyone cares about you.
  10. Don’t think you can teach us anything.

Yet there is an 11th rule of Jante Law which brings some perspective:

11.  Don’t think there’s anything we don’t know about you.

It’s against this backdrop that tax return data has been available for the public to view since 1863 – but in 2008 the authorities made a list available to the media enabling instant online access to all via a searchable database. Channel 4 noted reactions to this:

“Jan Omdahl, from the tabloid Dagbladet, wrote at the time: “Isn’t this how a social democracy ought to work, with openness, transparency and social equality as ideals?” However a poll carried out in 2007 found most of his countrymen disagreed: just 32% thought the list should be published, while 46% were opposed.”

Yet as the BBC noted it was Dagbladet who then went on to offer their readers the chance to automatically check and compare the income of their Facebook friends and to offer the service as an iPhone application – leaving Trine Skei Grane of the green party Venstre to comment how:

“We took part in opening up the system, but now the principle of openness is totally out of proportion” 

Here we return to the 11th Jante Law, from the Foreigner  “Being able to get information about everyone’s economic situation is an important historical principle in Norway, designed to ensure all contributed to society as they should – with the possibility of being “reported” if not”.

In another twist in the tail of openness it is well known that Scandinavia, with its deep roots of transparency, collaboration and egalitarianism, has seen the creation of many thriving open source projects including Linux, Skype and Joost.  Yet while open source is valued highly, the recent Norwegian Ministry of Finance’s suggestion that it may open source cash registers ‘to prevent tax fraud’ has not gone down so well.

So could we see the UK eventually go the same way or will we manage to walk the tight rope between privacy and transparency? It’s not just the government though who are intent on pushing the boundaries.  There are those who believe that businesses thrive more in an environment of transparency, flattened hierarchies and openness of  information – but to make this happen does require a serious cultural shift.  Just in the last year I have watched the debate hotting up around whether businesses would operate better with open salary policies with those ahead of the game like Nixon McInnes in Brighton leading by example, a fly on the wall documentary about a company which opened up it’s salaries on TV and even, I noticed last week, the London Metro running an article entitled ‘Share the wealth: Do you want your work colleagues to know your salary?’  In my mind once these questions are being raised in the mainstream media then it’s often the time to start taking the idea seriously as something which might just happen…

Cultures do adapt and certainly we have adopted the transparency of the internet rapidly and with relative ease – where would many of us be without Facebook?  But that adoption happened so quickly it did not give many of us time to weigh up where we stood on the privacy / transparency tight rope or its implications. Hopefully though as we move further down the transparency path we’ll have time to reflect before reaching norwegian levels because once a can has been opened the lid is usually very difficult to put back. Worth bearing in mind perhaps…

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January 2013 Links of Interest

Links of interest:

Smart Working    Social Media/Marketing     Technology     The Future City

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We’ll Shop-Hop ’til They Drop

So far this month 3 of the UK’s high street giants have bitten the dust – HMV, Jessops and today Blockbuster.  This should come as no surprise as we, The People, have headed out of their stores and moved swiftly through the doors of the online world.  So the Big Question in my mind now is what will our high streets look like in 5 years time?

It’s worth watching current trends to get a sneak preview:

Don’t Dupe Us (Large Greedy Corporates)

Take the new coffee shop Harris and Hoole who, claiming to be ‘a family affair’ is targeting those wishing to support the independents and luring them away from the Starbucks of this world. Yet when the coffee sippers got whiff of the fact that Harris and Hoole was in fact 49% owned by Tescos many were not impressed.  People don’t like being duped. When they realise they are, then the heckles rise – leading some to do the most curious of things .

Support Our Local Pop Ups

Pop ups are currently all the rage.   Supporting start ups and SME’s is at least one way of utilising empty spaces left by the broken retailers with even the government doing it’s bit by opening a store within the Department for Communities and Local Government in Westminster where six small retailers move in every two weeks.

But pop ups aren’t just popping up on the high streets.  Taking this concept one step further I visited the Medway Open Studios event one weekend before Christmas where makers opened up their own houses to show and sell their products.  One street in Rochester had 6 houses open to the public where anyone could freely walk in, meet the owners, browse their goods and purchase (if you felt so inclined – which I did).   Could this be a sign of things to come?

Merging online and offline?  We can handle that…

Why pay £70.00 for an item on the high street when you can pay £54.00 on Amazon and get it delivered to your door?  For most of us these days shopping online really is no big deal.  Only last week I was told by an extremely frosty manager of one high street clothing outlet that, despite my having shopped there for 15 years and spending £100’s each year with them that “no”, I could not return a sale item I had bought the day before even if I did want a refund of just £30.00 but intended spending £140.00 on other items there and then instead.  I went home to Amazon armed with my size details and product code and saved myself £38.00.  I will now only use that high street shop to try on items, make a note of my size, then jump online to purchase it.  Had the manger been given the authority to accept my explanation – rather than strict training around company returns policies – they would not have lost me.  Herein lies a lesson for the large chains to take on board. The importance now of a truly personalised service and why chain stores need to let their managers act like independents and allow them to make their own rational decisions.

Yet done right retailers can take full advantage of the merging of our online and offline purchasing habits.  John Lewis appear to have got it right in terms of their customers willingness to merge the bricks and mortar experience with their online shopping.  Econsultancy notes how, compared with the same period in 2011 their like-for-like sales was up 13% in the 5 weeks to December 29 2012 and their online sales grew almost three times faster at 44.3% – accounting for a quarter of all group sales.  Econsultancy goes on to give a great summary of 14 key reasons as to how they achieved it – and highlights how 40% of their shoppers used their reserve online and collect over Christmas service.

While bricks and mortar sort out their online stores so online stores are emerging onto the High Street.  Looking to the future Social Commerce Today discusses Ebay’s London Pop Up in Covent Garden:

“In truth, the eBay pop-up store works more as a concept and vision – rather than efficient shopping tool…  But we like it because it outlines what an Amazon-proof retail strategy of the future could look like

  • Event based – opportunistic, temporary pop-up around a popular shopping/calendar event
  • Experiential – re-imagines sensorial shopping in a fun interactive way with technology consumers know and love
  • Efficient – or ‘asset-light‘ in Mary Meeker Speak – low cost retail solution that bridges the artificial online/offline shopping divide”

So there is a future for our high streets – if done correctly.

Social Experiences Please

Perhaps what we’re really looking at then is a return of a high street which is as much about a social experience as it is about purchasing items.  A glimmer of hope in this direction appears in the world of book stores which, with the introduction of eBooks, many thought would make books stores on the high street a thing of the past. In the past 10 years the number of independent booksellers in Britain has halved – yet in August 2012 a report by the Booksellers Association found that the number of children’s bookshops in the UK had risen in the previous year from 36 to 40. As the Independent points out:

On high streets across the country, bookshops are fighting back and finding imaginative ways to attract customers, from bookshops with in-house ice-cream parlours and pirate ship-shaped crèches, to those with gift shops and on-site gigs.” 

Perhaps if HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster had looked to creating experiences for their clients and offering more than just products in supermarket style rows their demise could have been averted.

In truth though we don’t necessarily have to look so much ahead as look back to one great innovator of our high streets to relearn this lesson.  Mr Selfridge, who back in 1909 opened Selfridges and coined the phrase ‘the customer is always right’ is said to have ‘put the fun back into shopping’ which he did with great gusto.  If providing the first public demonstration of television in the store in 1925 and housing a seismograph which recorded an earthquake in Belgium in 1938 wasn’t enough then the miniature golf course (now reinstated) and all girls gun club on the roof (sadly not reinstated :-( ) should give us some inspiration for today.

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Les Flâneurs des Smart Cities

There’s currently a lot of hype around Smart Cities and how technology can assist cities to become ‘smarter’, more efficient and ultimately ‘aid’ the citizen.  Sensors which can be attached to nearly anything, the data collected about nearly everything, CCTV cameras and the tracking abilities of the phone in your pocket means that the opportunity for us to disappear in a crowd is pretty much impossible. Watching the Urban Age Electric City Conference 2012 last week I was pleased to hear Richard Sennett stand up against this hype proclaiming: “I love getting lost. Surprise and serendipity is part of the experience of complexity, how we innovate” and in an article he wrote for the Guardian that same week:  “If they have a choice, people want a more open, indeterminate city in which to make their way; this is how they can come to take ownership over their lives.”

He is not alone in his thoughts.  Over the centuries city dwellers have had to constantly adapt to new technological innovations and the importance of maintaining control of one’s environment resurges constantly.  Take Baudelaire and the technological advancements of his era in Paris:

In the mid 19th century cities were being transformed dramatically and since the French Revolution an extensive network of controls had appeared across Paris.  Balzac commented on the problems of modern living for city dwellers:

Poor women of France!  You would probably like to remain unknown so that you can carry on your little romances.  But how can you manage this in a civilization which registers the departures and arrivals of coaches in public places, counts letters and stamps them when they are posted and again when they are delivered, assigns numbers to houses, and will soon have the whole country, down to the smallest plot of land, in its registers?” (Modeste Mignon 1836)

Add to this Walter Benjamin who describes how the citizens of Paris reacted to the introduction of buses and trams:

People had to adapt themselves to a new and rather strange situation, one that is peculiar to big cities…  Simmel has provided an excellent formulation of what was involved here “Before the development of buses, railroads and trams in the 19th century, people had never been in situations where they had to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another”.  These situations were…  not pleasant” (Selected Writings 1938-1940 The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire)

There was deep uncertainty about this situation because city dwellers until then had not had to mix with others they did not know, never mind feel comfortable with.  Simultaneously a trend emerged amongst some members of the bourgeoisie in Paris (Baudelaire included) to write ‘physiologies’ – articles and poems published in feuilletons which were sold on the street describing members of the public they had observed while sauntering round the newly built arcades and wide avenues of Paris.  It was only once these  arcades (similar to the Burlington Arcade in London) and wide avenues such as Boulevard Haussmann were built that the art of the ‘flâneur’ (saunterer) emerged as previously cities had not been designed for casual walking – the streets having no wide pavements or arcades on which to sit or stand to simply ‘observe’.  It was suggested that these literary works helped people bridge the gap between citizens who had never had to mix before, give people a more friendly picture of one another and, as the physiologies developed over time, to even help reassure people that you could ‘make out the profession, character, background, and lifestyle of passers-by’.  There was, they implied, nothing to be worried about when travelling with people you did not know.

It was against this backdrop that Baudelaire lived in Paris and when the art of the flâneur grew.  It was Walter Benjamin who first used the name ‘flâneur’ when describing Baudelaire and the poetry he wrote. Baudelaire was a ‘saunterer’, a detached observer – a new concept of the time:

To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.” (Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays)

To Baudelaire being a flâneur meant that he could observe but also ‘disappear in the crowd’ which was relevant because he needed to stay under the radar to evade his creditors.  As described by Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire was constantly moving between cafés and reading circles and spent many years having 2 domiciles then when the rent was due moving onto a 3rd lodging with friends.  Roaming the city, keeping under the radar was becoming increasingly complex.  He was not alone in his resistance against the increasing tightening of controls. Even though the obligatory numbering of houses was introduced in 1805 it was recorded that by 1864 people in the proletarian quarters of the city at least, when asked where they lived, still referred to the name of their house and not the official street number.

For us the concept of a city without house numbers is almost unimaginable and we are accepting of a city full of CCTV cameras, but another suggestion made in the Urban Age Electric City Conference that perhaps it would be a great idea to have no lighting at night in some places in London but to ensure that everyone knew that CCTV cameras were in operation there to keep people safe is going a step too far…  Isn’t it???

With all this in mind it may be worth expanding Sennett’s comment in the Guardian from above with a little more context:

“the prospect of an orderly city has not been a lure for voluntary migration, neither to European cities in the past nor today to the sprawling cities of South America and Asia. If they have a choice, people want a more open, indeterminate city in which to make their way; this is how they can come to take ownership over their lives.”

Let’s hope we are given that choice.

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