London Debate: What caused the internet boom and crash?

Today, British eBay sellers can be found listing tens of thousands of products. How did this digital revolution work, and are we in any danger of being lost? Fiona Cross writes.

Some numbers that are used throughout the UK eBay community include: 30 per cent of UK people listed a product on eBay; more than 10 million people visit eBay sites in the UK every day; UK sellers have sold more than 20 billion items worldwide; over 200,000 listings are made every day in the UK; £70m worth of goods are traded every day on eBay.

What started off as a piquant little social media site has blossomed into an international e-commerce giant, in an industry of its own. How did we get here? eBay’s dream has been its motto since day one, as it advised users in an email alert: “Today’s eBay is just a start. There’s more to come”.

The reach of the service has certainly been staggering, and not just in the UK. eBay’s UK home page is displayed in 191 countries and territories around the world. EBay is a reference on our TVs, including across five of the seven top-billed programmes at this year’s Royal Television Society awards in London, YouTube, Apple, Netflix, Medium, MySpace, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Twitter, Spotify, and thousands of news organisations across the world.

The list goes on and on, and we all have our own stories. The last few years have seen the service grow from a simple website, into a global phenomenon in its own right.

In 2007, the US Census Bureau listed eBay as America’s ninth most common business. Today, 30 per cent of Americans trade products on eBay, and in 2016, the total value of UK transactions over the site was put at £35.6bn.

It has also proven successful for multinational retailers. Nearly 50 per cent of UK items sold are imported, and 95 per cent of international listings are purchased by non-UKers. Despite this, 44 per cent of UK eBay shoppers say the site is doing what it was set up to do, which is to help people find the products they want for less.

With this success has come a feeling of growing complacency and a sense of displacement. A recent survey, carried out by eBay for the Five Mile Town Festival in Oxfordshire, of 1,000 visitors to the festival revealed that 60 per cent feel alienated from the country’s many internet entrepreneurs, while nearly half consider eBay an unnecessary bureaucracy.

In the political arena, the rapid adoption of digital economy legislation means that the government has become increasingly keen to see the doors thrown wide open. In March of this year, the British government introduced new regulations that put 21st century technologies like online auctions on the same level as the high street and bricks and mortar stores. This legislation will lead to the transition of more than two million goods online from the hands of traditional retailers.

The realisation that is afflicting the British public is that online shopping is almost impossible to avoid and will forever place a form of discount-manufacturing around the country. Thankfully, eBay has attempted to counteract this trend by announcing ambitious expansion plans for the company, one of which is to set up a European HQ in Frankfurt, Germany.

While the overall theme of the year has certainly been the continuation of online, with sites like Alibaba in China and Facebook also jumping on the bandwagon, there’s no denying that e-commerce in the UK will always be a distant sight away from the most successful stores in the world.

Whether or not the UK Government will be remembered as a great leap forward, a place where innovation was planted in the soil, or a single-digit tentpole of history, remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: this year is the year of online retail and the retail industry of the future.

* Fiona Cross is the head of communications for eBay UK.

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