Mind the digital gap between big and small businesses

Emma Jones
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(FILE PHOTO) Google's First Quarter Profit Surges 60 Percent
One in four small firms still don't have a website (Source: Getty)

As a nation, we are topping all the charts for the amount we spend online.

According to the UK Cards Association, in 2016 we spent £154bn with our credit cards online on goods and services – and this figure is only likely to go one way this year, up.

But as the wheels of online commerce turn, it seems it’s not an equal playing field.

Read more: Coping with the cocktail of issues facing SMEs

The E-commerce and ICT Activity Report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests just 9.7 per cent of all sales from UK-based micro firms (that’s firms with nine employees or less) were e-commerce transactions in 2016. This compares with almost 56 per cent of sales from larger firms with 1,000 or more staff on the payroll.

It’s a worrying statistic that demonstrates a gap that is only growing year-on-year.

Beyond the headline transaction figures, the digital facts are startling. One in four small firms still don't have a website, and 40 per cent aren’t using social media to create a market. This is translating into a massive sales divide.

Big firms have the resources to invest in the latest digital e-commerce and m-commerce functionality – SEO, marketing, social and everything in between. Smaller firms have been slower on the uptake over the years, and seem to have less appetite for it. They are busy simply running the business, and don’t always see the benefits that digital can deliver.

And yet the irony is that the digital world is an arena in which they absolutely can compete with larger firms. For many smaller businesses that use it well, it’s the one thing that can tempt consumers away from bigger, less agile, more mainstream brands, which naturally have more brand awareness.

The issue is often a fear of the unknown, an expectation that building a website will be too expensive or time consuming. And for smaller companies, it’s yet another thing on a long to-do list that comes way behind bringing in today’s customers, stock control, paying staff, and just meeting daily fiscal responsibilities.

This is a universal problem, and it applies here in London – even though we’re actually loath to admit it.

We’re not talking about the trendy startup firms we read about all the time, but about your local high street shops, cafes, artisan producers, business services, accountants, artists, painters and decorators, mechanics, and restaurants.

These are the firms missing out on the digital boom. While it may seem ironic, to make digital progress many will need face-to-face help in real time.

This is why we’ve launched the Go and Grow Online campaign this week. In conjunction with our private sector sponsors (Verisign, Curry PC World, and Microsoft), we’ve been able to fund 20 digital experts that will go out and really support small businesses to up their digital game.

The campaign is expected to reach up to 10,000 firms across the UK. While we could attach some artificial figure to the amount of extra business this will bring in for small companies, the most honest thing to say is that it will help to stop the gap from growing even further and create some much-needed equality – before the digital gap becomes a gaping digital hole.

Read more: London businesses have been dealt a hammering

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