UK needs a broadband infrastructure fit for ‘Generation Consumer’

As Which? reveals the best and worst local authority areas for internet, the quality and reach of connectivity in the UK clearly needs to be prioritised. Equally though, retailers can take action to ensure their ecommerce websites are able to maximise the customer experience for consumers restricted by the slower speeds that have been revealed as this will not be resolved overnight. The Which? report shows a dozen local authority areas in the UK are falling short of the Government’s Universal Service Obligation of 10Mbps, with major areas such as London not even hitting the national average of 17Mbps. 

Improving connectivity infrastructure and investing in boosting broadband speeds around the country needs to be more of a priority for Digital Britain, where our retailers so often lead in market innovation and where consumers continue to spend more of their income online and increasingly manage more aspects of their lives online.   

Of course, in this day and age, almost everything is available from the smartphone or tablet. We stay up to date and in touch through our handheld electronics, we interact by voice, video, touch, motion and location to enable a whole host of capabilities we could only dream of a few years ago to communicate, inform, and even entertain ourselves. It is with this 21st century trend that we now need to enhance the shopping experience, including in-store, helping consumers find the right products at the right time at the right price and with helpful fulfilment options.   

Since the end of 2015, smartphones have become the predominant device type for connecting to eCommerce stores. According to IMRG earlier this year, over half of all internet traffic hitting eCommerce sites is arising from mobile devices, so it’s never been more important to stay up to date with your mobile eCommerce strategy. As the smartphone becomes ever pervasive and ever present, and as identifiable to an individual as a thumbprint or a signature, connectivity is key. Convenience is now the most important thing to us and it’s not enough for a shopper to rely solely on a trip to a retail outlet, they now want to have fast, responsive access to stores around the clock, in the palm of their hands. 

Despite a recently reported drop in overall consumer spending (e.g. in reports by Visa and the British Retail Consortium), eCommerce is bucking the trend and being bolstered by growth, particularly in regard to sales via smartphones. IMRG reported that sales via smartphones grew by almost half in May 2017, with more than half of visits to UK online stores now coming from smartphones and tablet computers. Having a reliable, fast and robust connectivity infrastructure to support this growth is fast becoming critical. Despite our relative market size, the UK is the third largest eCommerce market in the world behind the US and China, and the supporting technology available to UK citizens should match the expectations, and support the advancement, of Generation Consumer. Consumers are inevitably leading the way to a more mobile shopping experience as shopping via smartphone further overtakes the desktop.   

eCommerce site speed experiments run by the Financial Times revealed that for every one second slower page load time, sales conversions decreased by 4.9% over 7 days and by 7.2% if load time decreased by 3 seconds. It is clear the negative impact that poor coverage can cause for retailers. Notwithstanding the external broadband challenges, retailers need to seriously examine the strength of their own eCommerce sites to make sure sites can load pages and enable a transaction to complete as swiftly as possible by designing efficient customer journeys with low page ‘weights’ and reduced clicks or steps in the process as far as is practical. Retailers must ensure their online platforms do not ignore the slower speeds that so many of us currently have. Optimising eCommerce sites is now of paramount importance as with so much innovation online, if not logically managed, can actually make the shopping experience worse for those stuck with slow internet speed.   

Retailers are always looking for answers as to how to enhance and future proof their online shopping offerings in the era of Generation Consumer. The first step is to ensure their eCommerce platform is optimised for the customer today; that the site is robust and able to adapt to the changing pressures and competing forces, particularly the whole challenge around mobile technology, connectivity and access to fast wifi broadband.   

Taking a ‘mobile first’ approach to building out an eCommerce offering is an important step – and I don’t mean just making sure the mobile site or app is responsive and intuitive, but truly reflects what the user wants. This means making sure it is ergonomically sound and supports the rapid progress of mobile innovation – be it through location, biometrics, payment services, apps or the like. 

If the user is, as is typically the case, preferring wifi (and therefore broadband) for cost containment, then any impact of slow internet, (or for mobile - poor network coverage, spotty service quality and bloated data tariffs), then retailers can at least optimise journeys, page size and load times via the eCommerce platform to ensure as strong a customer experience as possible. This approach, once complimented by a frictionless and swift checkout, can help minimise the impact of poor broadband speeds a little. As proven by the FT stats, any delays when using a brand’s eCommerce site will see consumers drop off. 

Looking ahead, mobile users desire a joined up experience when shopping online and in-store (where relevant), taking advantage of mobile features such as location data, camera, biometric identification and social media integration for a wider, but more integrated, connected shopping experience. Achieving this without reliable, fast internet speeds will very likely be a challenge, even in a market as advanced as the UK’s.   

As seen with Barclays’ recent trial of mobile payments in-store, everyone’s phone can be a checkout in their pocket, where they can scan, and pay for items without interacting with a cashier. But, if the UK can’t keep up with the technological advances that retailers are inventing, then these advancements will deliver sub-optimal results. As well as this, recent research from Retail Economics found that nearly half (43%) of shoppers would spend more money in a store if they were given a "meaningful shopping experience" by a retailer, which means retailers need to be able to cope with the slow broadband and connectivity issues in the UK.   

The UK’s reputation for some of the most advanced eCommerce technology is strong and it is ironic that, as a nation, all our citizens don’t have equal access to the technological foundations that drive adoption. Retailers are rightly fighting this battle and trying to stay competitive by investing in their own infrastructures. eCommerce, particularly via mobile devices, is demonstrating prolonged growth – we must support Generation Consumer, as they are absolutely key to sustaining a stable economy in the future. 

Andy Burton, CEO of Tryzens 

Image Credit:  Thomas Vanhaecht / Pexels