​Investing in Innovation - How technology can help smaller businesses compete on the global ecommerce stage

From the laws of gravity to the laptop, British ingenuity has shaped our world. Britain has had a strong and proud history of championing new ideas and inventions. For example, if anyone could be said to have invented the future it was Alan Turing. He created a wartime code-breaking machine that was the basis for all computer technology. By imagining a machine that could solve all conceivable mathematical problems, Turing had invented the concept of the programmable computer years before anyone could even see how to build one. Other famous British inventors that immediately spring to mind include Frank Whittle, Joseph Banks and Isaac Newton, and there are many more that I could add to this impressive list.

With the recession firmly behind us and as we look ahead and prepare to take advantage of better economic times, I wonder how we in the UK can continue to utilise our inherent strengths such as entrepreneurship, knowledge, creativity, culture, music, sport, innovation and shopping.

Wait, shopping?! I hear you cry. The expression "a nation of Shopkeepers" was in fact made famous by Napoleon to describe the UK and although the description was often seen as a disparaging one, Napoleon claimed that it was not intended to be so, but was merely a statement of the obvious fact that British power was derived from commerce and not from the extent of its lands nor its population.

So how can we harness this appetite for commerce as we look to the future? I’ve been watching with interest the ‘Britain is Great’ Campaign launched by Central Government a couple of years ago which is aimed at helping SME businesses in particular get ahead. This is important as SMEs account for 60% of private sector employment. Part of this campaign has focused on helping small businesses and in particular micro-businesses ‘Do More Online’. The ‘Do More Online’ campaign included £2 million of funding to 22 projects through Local Enterprise Partnerships to help small businesses increase their digital presence. At the time Simon Devonshire, Government’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, said: “There are now 5.2m businesses in the UK, the first time the UK business population has gone over 5m. And yet Government data suggests that worryingly, more than 2m are yet to get online, and that only a third of UK businesses have a transactional website.”

I was surprised by this statement. Not only does the UK lead the world as an entrepreneurial nation but especially in technology (start-ups and manufacturing) and product design and innovation. As an organisation that is deeply immersed in technology it made me wonder why? As a leading software-as-a service (SaaS) provider NetDespatch operates in the global ecommerce world. I can’t imagine a business not being online. Do these 2m companies consider that it will be cost prohibitive or do they just not see the business advantages? And equally, do they not consider it a threat to their businesses if they don’t get online?

Nowadays technology is all pervasive and so much a part of our everyday lives that nearly all businesses should be thinking about their digital presence. In particular, we operate in the e-retail space and provide an outsourced parcel data management system for postal and parcel carriers integrating different systems to make the parcel despatch and shipping process as simple as possible – ensuring they deliver the right parcels to the right place at the right time to the right customers.

A simple concept but an incredibly complex process that thanks to NetDespatch is now greatly improved by technology. When you consider that online retail sales were £104b in 2014 (according to figures from the IMRG Capgemini e-Retail Sales Index) and we are looking at a further 12 percent growth on that figure in 2015 with total e-retail sales estimated to be worth £116bn by year end, it is easy to understand why making this process as efficient and streamlined as possible is important. Especially when you consider how easy it is for consumers to switch to another retailer if they don’t get what they want.

Today consumers want greater flexibility – both in the time and place where their parcels are delivered. They don’t just want to know their parcel will come at 11.00 am, increasingly they want to be able to collect their parcel from a destination that is convenient to them. The popularity of online shopping, and therefore the demand for quick and seamless parcel delivery, is now incredibly high. If retailers are going to successfully manage their online sales volumes, and provide a range of delivering options while keeping the cost of despatch and delivery down, they need to ensure they are automating and streamlining their processes. At NetDespatch we are helping businesses of all sizes to despatch goods more cost effectively to more consumers, and to offer more delivery options throughout the UK and across the world.

Technology has levelled the playing field in the ecommerce world and retailers both large and small now compete side by side for the same share of the customer wallet. I will be interested to read how the ‘Do More Online’ statistics have changed this year and hope that more of those 2m businesses are moving online so that the UK maintains its status as ‘a nation of Shopkeepers’ and continues to compete on a global stage.

By Becky Clark, NetDespatch CEO