Retail can be head-spinningly strange. Black Friday (which didn't even exist in Ireland a decade ago) has now become virtually indistinguishable from Cyber Monday (which didn't even exist anywhere 15 years ago). Some Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales start on a Saturday while other Black Friday events – that is what we are told we should call such things – go on for a full week before and a full week after the Friday billed as black. Some retailers have been celebrating Black Friday for a whole month.
We have an English inventor by the name of Michael Aldrich to thank for online shopping or at least for starting the ball rolling. He developed the earliest ecommerce platform in 1979 using a system that allowed people to communicate with retailers through their televisions with a thing called Videotex. It took five years before the first transaction was completed by a 72-year-old grandmother called Jane Snowball from Gateshead who used her television remote control to order margarine, cornflakes and eggs from her local Tesco. After she placed her order with the Videotex people, it was phoned in to the shop after which her breakfast of champions was delivered to her home.
It was a pretty humble start and viewed as a social service which might be used by older people or people without the means to get to shops. No one could possibly have imagined that, in fewer than 40 years, global ecommerce would be worth more than $4 trillion each year, a number which is growing fast.
The French Minitel system leapt on the idea with alacrity. It used a Videotex terminal machine accessed through telephone lines and through the 1980s and early 1990s connected millions of users to a computing network but its success was short-lived and was seen off by Tim Berners-Lee’s far more accessible world wide web, invented as the 1990s dawned.
By 1994, the ecommerce snowball was rolling down the hill in earnest, helped by a company called Netscape which had developed an encryption-based internet security protocol called SSL – or Secure Sockets Layer. It might not sound earth-shattering but without it, ecommerce as we know it would most likely not exist. The breakthrough Netscape made was a system which made it almost impossible for information sent over the internet to be intercepted. That meant people were able to shop online with credit cards without falling victim to criminals. The criminals, of course, worked out other ways to part us from our cash.
The Netscape move wasn't the only game-changer of 1994. At around the same time, a 21-year-old called Daniel M Kohn set up an online marketplace he christened NetMarket. It was heralded as "the equivalent of a shopping mall in cyberspace" and promised digitally secure transactions. And what was the first thing to be sold on the new platform? Ten Summoner's Tales by Sting. The CD cost $12.48. "The team of young cyberspace entrepreneurs celebrated what was apparently the first retail transaction on the internet using a readily available version of powerful data encryption software designed to guarantee privacy," said the New York Times at the time.
Hot on the heels of Kohn was Kenny's. Within weeks of the first transaction, the bookshop in Galway was taking its first tentative steps online after which it was joined by a small Seattle-based start-up called Amazon – the first book that site sold was the snappily titled Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought by Douglas Hofstadter. The Irish Times also went online that year. A year later eBay came to the party by which time big enterprises were falling over themselves to have an online presence.
Fast forward a decade and side-stepping all manner of online innovations and bubbles to the invention of Cyber Monday. It was brought to life in 2005 by a US website called shop.org, a business which – almost certainly – had no idea it was inventing anything of note at the time. All it did was issue a press release which said that while “traditional retailers will be monitoring store traffic and sales on Black Friday, online retailers have set their sights on something different: Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, which is quickly becoming one of the biggest online shopping days of the year.” The reason that Monday was such a big shopping day was because it was the day Americans returned to work and could use the better internet access of their offices to make their purchases. The notion did not take off in this part of the world immediately and it wasn’t until November 2007 that Cyber Monday got its first mention in this newspaper.
Black Friday came after that, at least in this part of the world, although it has a much longer – if more confused – back story. The origins of the day are disputed. The term may have been coined after a gold deal went disastrously wrong in the 19th century and prompted riots on the streets and forced the police to pull a long Friday shift they called Black Friday. Or maybe it was so-called in honour of the crowds that took to the streets of US cities on the Friday after Thanksgiving which falls on the last Thursday of November or because it was the busiest shopping day of the year and marked the moment retailers went from the red into the black.
What is not disputed is that it has no business being in Ireland and would not be here were it not for the twin forces of Amazon and Asda. The former rolled out Black Friday in this part of the world 11 years ago to little or no acclaim. But then the Walmart-owned Asda had a Black Friday event in its physical stores in the UK on the last Friday in November. People went wild for it. Literally. There were riots in the TV aisles up and down the land as people fought over cheap tellies and the like.
The following year, other retailers got involved and, by 2015, it was in Ireland too. It has grown bigger with each passing year. While some Irish companies are standing firm against the trend and others are encouraging people to use the days ahead to shop local – a concept dubbed Green Friday – it is still the time when online retailers see a significant spike in business and some consumers bag big bargains. Others, however, might find themselves ripped-off or let-down or spending money they don’t really have on stuff they don’t really need.
Oh and be careful where you buy. Buying from Irish websites and EU websites gives you rights you might not get elsewhere. This has never been more important than this year because for the first Christmas since the dawn of the internet, the UK is outside of the EU. Last week the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) reminded online shoppers of the importance of checking where a business is based before they buy. This follows research, commissioned by the CCPC, which shows that the majority of those who shop online look to the currency and address of the website before they buy goods. It warned that neither can be used as guarantees of a business’s location and urged people check for a registered address before they buy, to ensure they have strong rights under EU consumer protection law.
Know your rights
According to a recent global study from Ipsos which was published in this newspaper, 38 per cent of Irish people say they find shopping online harder than shopping in physical stores. It is not hard to see why. The randomness of clothes sizing – particularly for women's clothes – and the impossibility of trying things in advance makes sorting out your wardrobe in the online world challenging at times. And then there are missed deliveries and being hit with additional taxes and charges and having to deal with returns and buyer's remorse which don't do online shopping any favours either.
But, on the plus side, you can do all your shopping from the comfort of your couch, support local retailers who you might not be able to physically get to in time for Christmas, and enjoy far more rights as a consumer.
The rights issue should be front and centre in the days ahead. With that in mind, we figured we’d go over the rights you have and don’t have as a shopper heading into Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
1. If you buy something online and it is faulty or not as advertised or not fit for purpose you will have exactly the same rights as if you bought it in a shop. That means you are entitled to a repair, a refund or a replacement. You may have to cover the cost of sending the item back but it is a cost you should be able to reclaim from the seller.
2. Under an EU-wide directive, all online seller must give you specific information, including the price, any taxes that may fall due, delivery costs and details of what to do if you change your mind. The price you will be charged is of particular importance when shopping on UK-based websites.
3. A substantial amount of our online shopping has traditionally been done on sites based in the UK. In the past that made little difference to the taxes we paid as the UK was in the EU. But then Brexit happened and turned everything upside down. When taxes and charges are added to the mix, it can see the final price of some products jumping by more than 40 per cent when compared to the list price. Many retailers in the UK impose the taxes at checkout for Irish customers. Some don’t and while they are supposed to tell you that up front, the rule can be hard to police. Always make sure you know what you are likely to pay before checking out.
4. When shopping online you also have a cooling-off period of at least 14 days, starting from the date you receive the order. Before the end of the 14 days, an order can be cancelled and the item returned. Crucially, during this cooling-off period you can return the item for any reason. But if you cancel the order because you change your mind, you may have to pay for the cost of returning it.
5. The cooling-off period does not apply to certain things such as concert and plane tickets and hotel reservations.
6. Under EU rules, online retailers have 30 days to get your order to you unless you agree otherwise. None of the rules apply to products bought from sites outside of the EU so if you buy something from Denver Dan's Dodgy Deals your rights will be significantly diminished or non-existent.
Keep your wits
And while you may have more rights when shopping online, things can still go wrong and there are bad people lurking on the internet waiting for us to slip up. But if you have your wits about you should be grand.
A. If an online deal seems too good to be true then it almost certainly is too good to be true. If you find a brand-new Xbox or an iPhone 13 selling for a tenner on a website you can be sure it is either a fake or – more likely – a scam and the product will never arrive.
B. Look with suspicion at all emails offering amazing bargains with a single click. You might be saving 30 seconds by clicking on links in an email, but then again the time-saving step could end up costing you a fortune. Criminals are getting better at making bogus websites to look like the real deal. If you are misdirected to just such a site and enter your financial details, then you might be in real trouble. Instead of mindlessly following links, type an online retailer’s address into your browser. It might take you three seconds longer, but better safe than sorry.
C. Criminals and scam artists have been very busy targeting Irish people this year and are increasingly inventive with their tactics. So be incredibly suspicious of emails encouraging you to fill out a form or provide personal information and be even warier of any emails or texts warning you of suspicious activity regarding your online accounts or alerting you to a missed delivery. Never, ever follow a link in a text message purporting to be from your bank, Revenue, any delivery company or any online retailer.
D. Give your passwords an audit. Make sure they are complex passwords and made up of a mixture of numbers, symbols and letters in upper and lower case. And don’t use the same passwords for multiple sites.
E. Always look out for the padlock icon at the bottom of the browser frame when making a payment online. This symbol indicates that the website you are visiting uses encryption to protect you, which will make it much harder for cyber criminals to steal personal information. It is not the be all and end all but at least it is a starting point.
F. Take care when using shared computers or even open wifi hot spots when making payments online. Canny hackers can capture your account information and log-in details and steal your money.
G. Take your time and ask yourself is the deal on the table really a deal? Every year, the British consumer group Which? publishes a sceptical look at Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals and every year it reports that many of the offers are not as good as they seem. Items can often be found selling for cheaper or at the same price at other times of year.
According to some data published by Google earlier this month, Irish searches for Black Friday have jumped by 138 per cent when compared to last year, while the numbers searching for “Christmas”, “Christmas Decorations” and “Gifting” all climbed by about 40 per cent. Encouragingly for Irish-based retailers, the number of searches which included the phrase “near me” have also increased – by 50 per cent – suggesting our interest in keeping it local is even stronger than it was last year.
Google's director of small business in Ireland, Alice Mansergh, tells us the trends suggest that Irish people have been thinking about Christmas shopping for weeks already, perhaps spooked by supply chain issues which could lead to shortages as we get closer to the big day.
She says the switch to online shopping last year was “absolutely unprecedented” and driven by lockdowns which saw most traditional retailers closed for weeks in the run-up to Christmas. “People were searching for Irish businesses like never before [and] I think everybody was wondering what would the new normal be like.
"I think what's interesting in terms of the consumer trend is that many of those demographics who bought online for the first time last year, like your granny, learning how to use YouTube or learning how to buy toys for the kids, that behaviour has been extremely sticky.There was a possibility that we'd all go back to normal but actually what we're seeing is many of the search trends are up year on year on last year, even though the offline world has opened up."
She says the move towards online shopping even when alternatives exist suggests that “people are loving the safety and the convenience of buying online so the opportunity is there for Irish businesses to make sure they can be found when people are searching”.
That's where Google comes in. It recently launched a Local Opportunity Finder, a free online tool which is part of the Google for Small Business platform. It promises help to businesses to enhance their visibility and to reach existing and new customers who are looking for products while avoiding the supply chain challenge. All retailers have to do is enter the name of their business , and Google promises them "customised solutions to enhance their presence on Google Search and Maps – all in under five minutes".
Mansergh says businesses have to be where their customers are. “The good news is, most people don’t want to just buy everything from one store [and] still enjoy that sense of shopping around and maybe finding a local business that they could support. We can see that in the increases in searches for businesses ‘near me’. That tells us that Irish people are consciously still looking for a way to support local businesses.”
She also encourages businesses to have the confidence “to just back themselves, because Irish business owners are incredibly passionate and enthusiastic and resilient but so many of them will say: ‘Oh, I couldn’t. I couldn’t do digital. You know, when you think about it like, your consumers are online and searching for you. And you are passionate, resilient and entrepreneurial. And you can do digital.”
Róisin Woods from Ibec’s Retail Ireland Skillnet is also focused on helping Irish businesses make the most of the online opportunities this Christmas. Like Mansergh, she says they don’t have to have a full website with all the bells and whistles to get started. “We have seen a real pivot to online, be that building websites or developing social media strategies,” she says. “It can even be as simple as a retailer taking a video of themselves showcasing their products. People have really tried to embrace social media even if they did not have a website and the call to action can be as simple as calling or visiting the store. For retailers who haven’t got a site, social media is a great way to make a connection.”