View from above

Last time the economy was this bad, there was no internet. The consumer was on his own. But now things are different.

This credit crunch is confusing me. Save or spend? What would Gordon and Barack say? Which is the devil and which is the angel? I mean saving or spending, not Gordon or Barack. OK: let’s assume that we are meant to spend – welcome news for entrepreneurs – can those of us involved in the internet help? Yes, we can.

Last time the economy was this bad in the early 1990s, there was no internet. The consumer was on his own. But now things are different. We are all cost-conscious. Cheap is the new chic. 

And to find the bargains, there are price comparison sites. One of the first was for flights. That was a great British invention by John Hatt who launched from his Wandsworth attic in 1996, an idea I liked so much I led a management buy-in.

But there is another equally useful resource for would-be spenders in this downturn. And that is consumer reviews. Take hotels. What precisely are you looking for? Do you have particular gripes? I do.

I get incensed by the extra charge for internet access, when they stiff you with a £20  ‘supplement’, knowing full well that, as for many travellers, it’s something you need. If hotels do not charge extra for electricity or hot water – which are incremental costs to them – why, in 2009, charge for an internet connection, which is not? 

You can of course complain loudly at reception while some Basil Fawlty equivalent tells you about his wretched establishment’s ‘policy’. Or, much more effectively, you can post a review on a website to help the next traveller avoid that particular pitfall.

The rise and rise of has shown just how useful travellers find these reviews. In his recent book Click, internet data super-guru Bill Tancer illustrates this phenomenon’s now massive influence on travel.

I was a very early adopter of Tripadvisor. So when the chaps who, several years ago, launched its European competitor were seeking further finance, my fund, Howzat Media invested. We had already helped fund, a website allowing users to share reviews of local places such as restaurants and bars.

Or take consumer electronics. Unless you strike it lucky, it is hard to get impartial or even informed advice in shops. In some places (no names, no pack-drill – you know who you are), it is quite hard to get advice of any sort.

The internet monitoring company Hitwise recently announced its 2008 number one website for traffic in its  ‘UK Computers and Internet – Electronics category’. It was not Sony, Panasonic or Canon; but, a website I use every time I am tempted by a new gismo.

Another helpful site is in which two of the smartest tech guys I know are involved: Andy Phillips, who founded Active Hotels, and legendary tech-banker-turned-investor, Eden Ventures’ Ben Tompkins. Reevoo covers a whole range of electronics from toasters to PCs.

That’s the power of the internet. It gives ordinary consumers a voice and a choice. Online research is becoming increasingly a standard part of consumer behaviour. And, by the way, if you use digital technology to find the perfect hotel room with unlimited free internet access, the ideal bistro or that stellar HDD/DVD player, do mumble a little thank you to the greatest and probably most unappreciated Briton of our time, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

One last thought: even today, there are probably still areas of consumer spending not covered adequately by review sites. So, if you are considering a web start-up…


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