Making digital market places fairer: Theme of 2018 World Consumer Day today

Thursday, 15 March 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

With the advancement of technology Sri Lankans are now at the doorstep of digitisation with mobile phones in everybody’s hand and computer literacy of 40% - Pic by Shehan Gunasekara



World Consumer Day is when consumers show their strength to the world in organising the membership worldwide, initiated by Consumer International. Sri Lanka takes part in a low profile as the consumer is not as well organised as in other parts of the world due to the lack of leadership and inefficiency of the main consumer regulator which is expected to organise and catalyse the celebrations. 

The strength of the consumer who is also the citizen is education, activism and organisation to engage in protect and enhance the due rights and entitlements as the powerful group is not recognised and looked after by the regulator, trader, industrialist and the business community. 

They say the consumer is a king and mighty powerful who is always correct, well organised in the West with the help of the media, organisations and the state contributing for a fair consumer regime while looking after the trader and industrialist. 

In the United Kingdom the magazine WHICH guides and protects the consumer, with the Department of Trade and Industry as the regulator supervising the consumer protecting and safeguarding the citizen from providing them with quality consumer items of high standard at a reasonable price. Trade law including competition process and self-regulatory regime to avoid naming and shaming are direct and indirect methods of maintaining high standards of consumerism. 

EU consumer is protected by EU regulations applicable to EU countries and Canada Australia and even Latin America and African countries consumerism in of high standards compared to Sri Lanka. Singapore and Hong Kong are so advanced the consumer is educated from the airport. India legal system complements consumerism with consumer courts and advance jurisprudence and case laws on the subject.

Main consumer regulator

In Sri Lanka the main consumer regulator is the Consumer Affairs Authority set up under Act No. 9 of 2003 giving regulatory powers in place of traditional price control regime with controlled prices which is now in the process of regularisation with enormous powers to the CAA with branches countrywide. 

The Consumer Affairs Authority is expected to initiate and promote consumer movement to organise the consumer and it is doubtful whether there are any consumer organisation to assist the consumer in combating cost of living and demand quality consumer goods and services at quality at a reasonable price and standards. 

Quality of goods services food and consumer items are sub slandered, pullulated, and of inferior quality due to lack of supervision and regulation by the CAA and other regulators such as Telecom regulator, Insurance and Trade Ombudsman, Public Health Inspectors, local bodies, Health Department and many statutory bodies in the process of providing the consumer quality consumer items of good standard.

With the advancement of technology Sri Lankans are now at the doorstep of digitisation with mobile phones in everybody’s hand and computer literacy of 40% with young generation armed with excellent computer skills, using credit cards advanced banking methods, and engaged in modern technology via FB and social media for day-to-day life including shopping marketing and communication with the rest of the world. 

Though online shopping is not in practice as in the United Kingdom and worldwide where 40% of the consumer items purchased online, Sri Lanka appears to be  getting ready for a long jump with advanced applicability of modern technology in business and day-to-day transactions and the day will be not far for the majority of the population to purchase online.

Online applications such as Uber are is commonly used by the consumer and plans of unmanned electric cars in a few years will obviously have a ripple effect on Sri Lanka eagerly awaiting to embrace technological advancements when the Sri Lankan consumer is using international purchasing platforms such as e-bay, alibaba and similar platforms which are now common here with new payment platforms. 

Uber, a main digital application catering to millions of customers worldwide including Sri Lankan customers, is expanding to bring blow drying and food chains to doorsteps which will revolutionise online purchasing further.

Digital Minister

Sri Lanka has a Digital Minister linked to telecommunication having entered into number of MOUs with foreign governments and multinational companies on introduction of digital advancements. Digitisation on education has commenced by setting up digital classrooms and equips students and teachers with laptops and tabs and the day is nearing on expanding it to other areas with development of technology and telecommunication sector led by Telecom and Dialog.

Digital regime

How do you make the digital regime fairer in Sri Lanka with outdated regulator CAA and fast developments in technology? And are we in the digital age or at the doorstep are the issues to be resolved today. This question has arisen in the West as well due to lightning changes of the process, but the consumer movement and the regulator has taken quick measures in protecting the consumer with insurance schemes, self-regulatory, naming and shaming methods, and supervisory process by the Department of Trade and Commerce in the United Kingdom and regulations in the EU. 

Digitalisation in the world is fast changing with adverse effects of shedding billions of jobs, unlimited changes in the lifestyle due to excessive innovative changes to make life easier at the risk of the healthy life, with unexpected undesirable changes in the lie and economy of the world with excessive innovations and easy life. 

Will Sri Lanka have a ripple effects on the wave of digitisation and to what extent and when it will invade Sri Lanka is a matter for the leaders in promotion of digitalisation as the developments depend on the vision and the strategy of the State and the leaders of the private sector determined to implement digitalisation with the introduction of a new powerful ministry and promoting and encouraging the public and private sector to embrace any new fashions spreading worldwide considering as secondary whether it is suited to us or not.

Digital marketplaces

Whether digital market places which are thriving in the West have a foothold in the Sri Lanka and the potential is very interesting considering the internet and mobile users with the able and intelligent youth fast embracing modern technology spreading to the village with multinational telecom companies dedicated trade wars as in the West, aiming at the foreign exchange freely flowing out in the free economy with the circulation of black money in abundance connected to drug trade, smuggling and the underworld thriving in the length and breadth of Sri Lanka with an increase of crimes and an illegal network encouraged by bribery and corruption.

Theme of the year

The theme of the year is appropriate to the rest of the world but not for Sri Lanka with limited invasion of the threat/prospects of digitalisation with a positive note and it is advisable to act safer before jumping into the unknown territory. Experts predict full digitalisation in Sri Lanka in 10 years with innovative smart cities in line with Israel, Hong Kong, and UAE with the presence of giant local and multinational telecoms established already by changing the priorities of the citizen to mobile phones and internet over other day-to-day expenses. When 40% of the global population is online with 750 million global internet users, Sri Lanka will find it difficult to be out of the world trend out of necessity, compulsion or convenience.

Way out and future strategy, vision and a trade policy

Before making digital marketing fairer we have to make our existing system which is inefficient and ineffectual advanced and compatible with world trends according to the needs, challenges and requirements. 

Chinese multinational company Alibaba started by English teacher Hangzhou is the biggest retailer with 100 British brands and customers with 440 million active clients which is protected by the UK Government and is a guideline for our Digital Ministry headed by a young and energetic Minister who we expect to agitate for an appointment of an educated head for CAA with a legal background as the  Chairman by the Constitution Council for a non-political regulator for the benefit of the consumer/citizen with appropriate changes in the Act. 

E-bay (167 million), Game (4 million) and Fruugi (25 million) are conducting worldwide business with UK base with almost no complaints due to their consumer friendly attitudes supervised by the State; there are good precedents we should borrow from the West in improving our standards and making digital marketing fairer in Sri Lanka until the world trends inevitably invade us without a less regulated and inert approach on international trade with no vision, programme or trade policy. 

Introduction of Microsoft 365 with cloud business transformation by Commercial Bank and steps taken by other banks are in the right direction and it is good to be careful to maintain the balance on excessive growth. It is time we encourage and promote our young entrepreneurs to innovations, creations, and on startup companies in line with the vision on the Israeli youth on innovations taking them up to the world standards on creative innovations.

Dhammika Perera, supposed to be the richest man in Sri Lanka who bought Singer, said at his recent presentation in Colombo that his company has increased online business of Singer by 38% after taking over and observed that online trend is reverting back to a mixture of online and storage worldwide, again indicating the uncertainty of world business trends with developments at excessive speed.

(The writer is former Chairman of Consumer Affairs Authority and former Ambassador to UAE and Israel. He can be reached via email at [email protected].)

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