Data driven dictatorship

Frockery HQ (left) in Victorian times with not a search engine in sight

We have been guilty of blog neglect in recent months, but as friends and fellow tweeters will know, the chief frocker has been somewhat preoccupied with saving the world. While the minor frockers  have been doing a great job minding the shop, our Frockery talk has been far less frequent on our blog and social media channels, for which we can only apologise.

The good news is that the chief frocker is back on more regular wardrobe duties. She is also happy to report a victory in the UK Supreme Court in July, which put the brakes on Scottish Government legislation to permit state guardians to collect and share information on every child in the land without consent. The far-reaching powers contained in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, which were due to come into force on 31 August 2016, were unanimously held to be in breach of Article 8 of the ECHR and data protection principles and cannot now proceed. Hailed as a triumph for campaigners and a humiliating defeat for the government, the 'named person' law has been a red hot media topic for months. The chief frocker has been involved in the campaign from the outset, she attended the Supreme Court hearing and judgment day in London, and has been writing and commenting prolifically on the subject in the media.

So what has it all to do with the price of frocks? Well quite a lot from our point of view as a business which takes customers' privacy seriously and doesn't believe in misusing their data, which we obviously need for processing orders and responding to enquiries. We would never send spam and have a strictly opt-in 'new products' mailing list from which users can easily unsubscribe in one click. To ensure a secure shopping environment we use PayPal and Worldpay as third party processors to deal with online payments, and although we accept email and telephone orders, we never take card details over the phone. These days you can never be too careful when it comes to data security, as Yahoo and others have recently discovered to their cost.

Nuisance cold-calling, email and comment spamming on blogs and social media adversely affect individuals and businesses alike. We receive junk calls on a daily basis, ranging from unsolicited marketers and charity chuggers (our pet hate) to blatant fraudsters and scammers, who have obviously managed to fool less savvy individuals. Individually and collectively, they raise our blood pressure as well as wasting our time.  In the absence of effective action by the regulators (at least until the GDPR comes into force in May 2018 which will levy hefty penalties for breaches), we have resorted to disabling our answering machine and screening numbers as callers are relentless and often rude. Email is therefore the best way to contact us as we are not always within office phone range.

Call us old fashioned- vintage, in fact - but we abide by the principles of honesty, trust and common courtesy when it comes to relationships with our customers and we pride ourselves on good customer service. We are small, autonomous and fiercely independent, and we aim to stay that way, although the march of the big brands and dominance of global corporations is making it increasingly difficult for us wee guys, whether we trade online, on the high street, or both. Big business, like big government, is now big data-driven, which means that customers (and citizens) are surveilled, tracked, profiled and targeted as 'prospects' to within an inch of their private lives in the pursuit of profit. So there truly is a link with the chief frocker's campaigning activities around data protection and civil liberties!

Take Google, for example, which captures and collects a frighteningly large amount of personal data on all its users, allegedly to provide a more personalised service (it's what they all say, including the government, whose claim that it's "here to help you" should be taken with a dose of salts). We know that the search giant  invariably returns big brands over small players in its results, effectively deciding what searchers are permitted to see and therefore skewing the playing field to the disadvantage of junior league players, who often have the edge on price and quality as well as customer service. This 'nudging' is becoming ever more overt, even aggressive, and we are witnessing the once niche slow fashion sector being systematically sorted by dominant global corporations into hierarchies that serve fellow corporate interests.  Big players wearing ethical badges of convenience have largely taken over, while independents are squeezed out unless they pay handsomely for a tiny piece of the action - and even then it isn't guaranteed or is just a few crumbs from the top table.

Google's unfathomable algorithms and ever changing rules, aided and abetted by omniscient Panda and Penguin enforcers, have become more akin to a protection racket than a user-oriented search facility, and we find that starting on page 50 will invariably serve up more reliable results for what we are actually looking for. So before a Crocodile or Vulture algorithm update arrives to feast on what's left of small independent online businesses by bleeding dry minuscule budgets that can't compete with big brand spenders that dominate the charts, we have officially given up on second-guessing Google and converted back to good old common sense.

That other global giant Facebook has been heading in much the same direction, with 'free' business pages being filtered out of followers' feeds unless they pay for the privilege. We don't and won't! Ebay has meanwhile painted small sellers into a corner with little room for manoeuvre, so thank goodness for Gumtree, local selling groups and the Twitterati (for now at least).

As we all know, small (and sometimes even big) shops - both bricks and mortar and online - are disappearing at an alarming rate due to inclement trading conditions for both. Fortunately, we have found there are still many ways to let customers and potential customers know we are open for business, even down our small, badly lit internet back alley. The power of satisfied, returning customers and word-of-mouth recommendations cannot be overestimated, so please keep telling friends to tell friends about us and provide website directions to help them find us!

We are active supporters of 'shop independent' and 'shop local' initiatives and would ideally like to see more collaboration among small independent brands and traders to maintain a healthy diversity in the marketplace. It was a real disappointment for us to see the recent closure of a social enterprise in Dundee, which aimed to bring together micro-enterprises, designers and makers under one roof. It is a concept whose time has definitely come, but in the absence of significant start-up and ongoing investment, smaller scale endeavours are more likely to produce small but beautiful returns. Certainly in the 'slow fashion' sector (vintage, preloved, hand made, recycled) there is a rich tapestry of talent and a strong and mutually supportive community of interest, so it makes sense to develop collaborative links for one-off or more regular projects.

We are still committed to saving the world, one frock at a time, so watch out for some of these ideas in action here at the Frockery in the near future.  Meanwhile it's Goodbye Google from us!