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perspective

Online trade fast shedding its shackles


Improved smartphone connectivity will ease security concerns in the coming year

The prediction that 2016 would see an explosion in online business wasn’t quite on target, but it didn’t miss by much. While conventional business transactions still held sway, the year witnessed a dramatic increase in orders and payments made via the Internet. The post offices, all but devoid of customer traffic in recent years, are busy again with people picking up packages containing the items they’ve purchased on the Net.
Year-end reports confirm that 2016 brought a surge in online trade around the country, if not the expected upheaval. Whereas, in 2012, 60 per cent of online transactions centred on Bangkok and its suburbs, 70 per cent this year stemmed from the upcountry provinces. Samut Songkhram alone recorded a 220-per-cent jump in Internet trade, with Amnat Charoen, Chumphon, Kanchanaburi and Kalasin also seeing marked increases.
The chief catalyst behind the changes in the economic landscape is of course the continuing proliferation of increasingly dependable smartphones. Lingering suspicions that online transactions by phone lack the requisite security are evidently keeping the boom from getting bigger. But, even so, banks report that automated teller machines, having effectively replaced an entire segment of the human workforce, are lately drawing fewer users because phone apps for transferring money and paying bills are getting more and more reliable, as well as being more convenient. The growth of the “portable Web” might yet see ATM transactions relegated to history as well.
The big beneficiaries in the rising acceptance of online shopping have been purveyors of healthcare and beauty products, agencies taking ticket bookings and hotels logging reservations. And, just as ubiquitous phones have usurped the role of desktop computers in connecting to the Internet, so too have handheld devices become the preferred means of doing business online. The shift has even altered the retail mechanism known as “impulse buying”: Rather than referring only to people in actual stores lured by showcased products, it now also applies to sudden cravings for goods flashed online.
You don’t need to be a soothsayer to declare that online trade will just get bigger and bigger. Thailand is now poised for deeper 4G penetration, which will further hasten the acceptance of Internet transactions. Meanwhile China’s Jack Ma, an entrepreneurial hero by dint of his success with the Alibaba Group, has predicted that ordinary folks with a little creativity will crowd to the forefront in taking advantage of fast-evolving technology, becoming rivals to the major retail corporations.
If true, this will be a marvel to behold, but it will worry governments too, since it’s far easier for individual entrepreneurs and small firms to find loopholes and avoid paying taxes in part or in whole. The large corporations enjoy no such grey area in taxation procedures that are evolving along with online trade. That grey area will only expand as governments struggle to keep up with the technology and public preferences. The Thai government’s attempt to exercise greater control over Internet activity no doubt has something to do with this.
Another worrying consequence as more retail businesses go online will be the loss of jobs. Small-scale entrepreneurs with limited capital naturally benefit if there are fewer employees to pay, but the reduction in job opportunities will be hurtful for the average working man and woman. 
Nevertheless, online business is here to stay and sure to expand enormously in 2017. Everyone will have to adjust to the phenomenon and commit to the new reality. If all of us – from the government and Internet regulators to service providers, retailers, consumers and workers – embrace the change with an eye to assisting those unable to adapt, it ought to be a boon to society.

Published : December 30, 2016

By : The Nation