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A Very DisCo Christmas: How Online Shopping Made the Holidays Easier


It’s the holiday season: in London, the Christmas lights are twinkling, trees of various size are popping up in every square, and the air smells faintly of mulled wine. Have I bought any presents yet? Of course not. Because I’ve been busy and disorganized and, hurrah, the internet will let me take care of it all. Don’t get me wrong — I love a stroll round the shops as much as anyone — but going online opens up a world of retail possibilities one could only have imagined before.

Because Christmas is a time for sharing, I asked some friends to share their thoughts on online shopping with me. It used to be only children that wrote letters to Santa, but now grown-ups can do so as well. Before you even start browsing, knowing what a special someone wants can make the process easier. “Parents and husbands should know that many women keep a Pinterest wish list of gifts they’d like to receive,” one friend very subtly hinted.

Next, it means that you can find even the most obscure items to give. “All my son wants for Christmas is a cuddly toy pretzel with a face on it!” declared another friend. “Luckily Etsy has such a thing…. just hope it arrives in time.” Etsy got several shout-outs. You can set the search criteria to give you handmade products made in your local area. You can buy earrings made out of beetles. You can, sadly, no longer enjoy its worst excesses on Regretsy, but they were hilarious.

The fact is, with eBay, Etsy, Iwantoneofthose and others, anyone can turn their unique gift for making felt ravioli into a literal gift. The internet has succeeded in scaling up cottage industry, and lots of people prefer a charming handmade gift to traipsing round the shops. “It’s more the agony and the ecstasy of ‘will the post room people get so fed up with my parcels that they cease delivering them to my desk?!’ — Husband had a 7 foot Christmas tree and two chainsaws delivered to work, ordered online,” says another friend. She didn’t mention why he needed so many chainsaws. Let’s just acknowledge that we all approach the festive season in our own unique way.

Then there’s gifts you couldn’t buy in a shop because they’re based on uploading something personal for that special someone — no, nothing like that! This is a family holiday! “I like things I can order and get sent to family,” writes another friend. “My mother is obsessed with fridge magnets so that service that makes fridge magnets from your Instagram photos was great, and I’ve now twice made them a calendar via Apple.” Or, you can get children a completely personalised book, where they meet a cast of whimsical characters to find their name. Thank you Internet.

The other great thing, which I can absolutely testify to as somebody who spent a decade living abroad, is that you can order things to be sent home without encroaching on your precious baggage allowance. “I did Erasmus in Hamburg in, gulp, the 1990s and books in English were very hard to find,” another friend recalls. “I craved books and swapped them with others or scoured the city for second-hand sales… But then. The Internet. You could buy anything… maybe this sounds silly but really it made a huge difference to living abroad and I felt much less cut off.”

As easy as it is to click and order, there are complications as well. For a start, tax systems worldwide were designed on the basis that people walk into shops and buy things, and the internet has changed all that. At the macro level, the DisCo has spilled a lot of ink discussing those already (see here and here as examples). At the micro level, national tax authorities are having to issue guidelines for those who make a living selling everything from jewellery to chainsaws online. And once those transactions are cross-border, it only gets more complicated.

That’s something the EU wants to fix, so you have until Friday (admit it, you’re online shopping anyway) to fill in the public consultation. This “presents a real opportunity to ensure that future VAT revenues from the digital economy are distributed fairly and effectively,” says Pierre Moscovici, EU Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs. “At the same time, we want to make it as easy as possible to comply with the rules.” After all, if you’ve spent all day fiddling with pliers to make beetle earrings the last thing you need is taxman spreadsheet hell. The Commission is due to make legislative proposals in 2016 to reduce the administrative burden on businesses arising from different VAT regimes

In case you don’t want to shop through Internet giants and you want to support your local high street shops, don’t worry, Hive has thought about that and makes their virtue a selling point. They give a cut of every sale to the independent bookshop of your choice. The choice, as ever with the internet, is yours.

Increasingly, it’s also hard to tell where the gap between online and offline is as well. With payment systems like iZettle, shops and web are blended; many hip emporiums use QR codes and smartphones for loyalty cards, and see few or no barriers between their online and offline customers. Most high street shops have a website — and many allow you to order online, then collect in-store, for the ultimate internet/real world shopping mash-up.

If you feel bad about consumerism full stop, the internet makes it easier than ever to help homeless people near you, buy a composting toilet in a refugee camp or exchange cards with a stranger.

Ultimately, it’s the thought that counts, so even if you just go online to look up recipes to cook delicious food for your friends and family delicious food, video-call your great-aunt or get some poetry-writing tips, that’s still a thing of beauty at this sentiment-fuelled time of year. And hopefully we’ll all take at least some time out to unplug our devices, eat mince pies and enjoy the festive season together; I know that’s what I’m off to do! In the meantime, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

European Union

DisCo is dedicated to examining technology and policy at a global scale.  Developments in the European Union play a considerable role in shaping both European and global technology markets.  EU regulations related to copyright, competition, privacy, innovation, and trade all affect the international development of technology and tech markets.