It might seem strange that Twitter boss Jack Dorsey, one of Silicon Valley’s most recognisable faces, is throwing his support behind the small British businesses struggling to survive the ‘retail apocalypse’. But he has his reasons for doing so. As he told the Daily Telegraph he believes financial payments technology, such as his cash app, Square, can save the high street as Amazon’s tentacles stretch further into the world of British retail.
You could see this as a dig at Amazon, or merely a promotional exercise for Dorsey’s payments business. But he isn’t wrong about the potential of tech to transform small British businesses. Indeed, tech is becoming vitally important, if not necessary, to the ongoing survival and flourishing of the 5.4 million micro-businesses which make up 96% of all businesses in Britain.
The reason for this has little to do with enabling businesses actually to ‘compete’ with Amazon — at least not on Amazon’s terms. It’s hard to imagine any small business coming close to matching the cost and convenience of Amazon, whose logistical power, in all likelihood, will soon be improved further by the addition of drones. No: what small businesses offer to the customer is experience, originality and a sense of discovery, underpinned by the human touch. They promise diversity — the kind of diversity promised by the Roman fora, the Greek agora, the bazaars of the Middle East. Businesses promising homogenous products and impersonal customer service were among the first to feel the effects of Amazon’s entrance into British retail. Through small and independent businesses, retail is, in effect, returning to its roots, and offering something Amazon can’t. ‘Retail isn’t dead,’ as Nike’s Kathy Sparks has said. ‘Boring retail is dead.’
In this way, small businesses are carving out a niche for themselves into which Amazon can’t fit. But that crucial difference alone doesn’t promise a high street renaissance. In order to do what they do best, small businesses need to emancipate themselves from those time-intensive but cost-inefficient (if necessary) menial tasks. And this is where technology comes in. Payments technology of the kind Dorsey describes and sells is just one example. Cloud products — subscription-based, centrally hosted, managed and secured, constantly updating and improving — are another. Products such as these require a minimum of digital literacy for the buyer, but represent a kind of digital infrastructure, which allows the business owner to give her or his time and attention to customer service, product development, or the exploration of other areas of untapped or potential value. There’s advanced analytics software accounting technology, and automated market and sales products. All of them make time-intensive tasks quick and easy. And in the coming years, developments in machine-learning and automation will present business owners with more and more ways to take care of the menial, so they can focus on the important.
Now, the job of the tech provider (and indeed, anyone who cares about the future of the high street) is to make this plain. Some business owners will hardly need persuading. Others will: in traditional areas of retail, for instance, there is naturally a resistance to new ways of doing things. And of course, the benefit derived from the uptake of technology will vary from business to business. There may be teething problems for some companies. But it is fast becoming a necessity in the modern world of retail to accept and take advantage of digital technology. Those who do so at the first opportunity stand to benefit. And with the revitalisation of the great British high street, the rest of us do as well.