By Richard Stevenson, Head of Corporate Communications at 1&1

As Broadband Britain has grown apace, UK businesses have steadily learnt that an online presence can boost revenues and enhance their image. Research indicates that today around 60 per cent of small and medium sized firms have a website and around 30 per cent are able to take payments online. But to what degree do consumers expect online facilities, and how has online retailing changed consumer behaviour?

1&1’s research of 1400 UK consumers finds that 49 per cent now regularly buy from Internet-only firms with no physical shop premises. The average Briton is confident to engage with eBusiness — a brilliant achievement. In fact, shoppers in 2010 are not only comfortable with interacting with businesses online; a great many now prioritise this method. For example, 52 per cent prefer to use online facilities to adjust or check their customer administration. This is can be an invaluable addition to a website as both consumers and businesses save precious time. Indeed, the majority of shoppers now see little distinction between online and offline brands. 48 per cent of Britons expect all businesses to have a website, and 1 in 3 admit to feeling ‘concerns’ about using a firm that has no website.

Nearly two thirds of shoppers (65 per cent) admit to becoming more ‘demanding’ since starting to buy items online. 43 per cent now expect a quicker turnaround for orders than before, and 30 per cent expect a better customer experience overall. All businesses would be wise to note that consumer expectations have shifted firmly. This appears to be mirrored by a further study of 390 UK small firms that finds that 39 per cent of business owners believe their overall attitude towards customer care has been improved as a result of their selling online.

Significantly, some 29 per cent of consumers admit they now respond better to electronic display adverts over printed ones. Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that 1 in 3 view online shops to be ‘as important’ to Britain’s economy as high-street stores. Consumers have seen practical benefits from our ‘digital economy’ and are keen to protect them.

The data also reveals that online trading has resulted in some interesting social impacts. Many citizens view the selling of products online to be important to society. More than half now regard running an Internet-based enterprise as a mainstream career possibility. Furthermore, 1 in 3 people (35 per cent) believe that the ability to sell to others online has been a significant motivator for those less privileged to become involved in business. 83 per cent of those surveyed believe the Internet has increased the likelihood of the average person succeeding with a business venture, and 1 in 5 people have considered starting their own online business.

1&1’s data reveals that the average business now raises 11-20 per cent of it sales revenue solely from its website. Remarkably, even through the recent recession, 46 per cent of firms still experienced an increase in online sales revenue over the past 3 years. The average firm now deals with 30-40 per cent of enquiries electronically. Over half of companies (54 per cent) have changed their business plan in recent years as a result of online selling opportunities. Operating online has led 54 per cent of business owners to become more creative, and three quarters accredit their online efforts to be a driver of their entrepreneurship.

However, consumer expectations have accelerated fast in recent years and research suggests that large numbers of Britons are seeking greater web functionality and will vote with their feet according to who offers it. It is pleasing that consumers are firmly committed to e-business. As technologies grow, the future promises great potential for firms to optimise their customer experience.

Consumer concerns checklist

1 — Visibility on the web — Consumers are concerned by a lack of web identity and evaluate online reputation before purchasing

2 — Facilities for communication — Shoppers will spend more if they know that support is only one-click away

3 — Online administration — Britons now actively seek online facilities for checking/amending customer or order details

4 — Relevant resources — Consumers are highly receptive to sector-specific advice and tips that can strengthen a purchasing decision

5 — Usability reflects upon a business — The average consumer is now unforgiving of poor design or slow load and transaction speeds