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December 2016

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Self-employed need level playing field, says IPSE

IPSE, the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed, is calling for a level playing field for the self-employed with better pension provision and maternity allowance. Its response to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee inquiry into "the future world of work and the rights of workers" highlights the need for a better understanding of the expanding self-employed workforce, so that the Government can meet its needs.

Turning hobbies into businesses

New research by Wix has found that 50% of Brits aged 25-35 would like to turn their hobby into an online business in 2017. The poll of 2,000 people found that, irrespective of age, 44% would prefer to run their own online business than work for someone else. Popular start-up interests are cooking, photography and sport; 34% of respondents said they were inspired by TV shows such as The Great British Bake Off and The Apprentice and also by TED talks.

Personal Tax Accounts celebrate first birthday

It has been one year since HMRC introduced Personal Tax Accounts and seven million people are already using them. Customers can use their PTAs to check their state pension, complete and return self-assessment tax returns, update tax credits circumstances and claim an Income Tax refund. Jane Ellison, financial secretary to the Treasury, said: "We want to make HMRC the most digitally advanced tax authority in the world and it is encouraging that so many people across the country are already logging onto their Personal Tax Accounts to manage their taxes."

Retail sales exceed expectations

UK retail sales growth accelerated in the year to December, with volumes rising at the fastest pace since September 2015, according to the latest monthly Distributive Trades Survey from the CBI. However, 2017 is likely to be a much tougher year for retailers. Ben Jones, CBI principal economist, said: "It's encouraging to see retailers reporting another month of healthy sales growth ... While we still expect to see decent growth in the near term, the pressures on retail activity are likely to increase during 2017."

Christmas 2016 sees surge in mobile shoppingThere has been a significant rise in the number of online purchases being made on mobile devices in the run-up to Christmas this year.

Mobile traffic has risen by 26% according to the latest analysis by ecommerce consultancy Salmon.

Since Black Friday, mobile devices have led the way in online retail traffic, with 53% coming through mobile alone and 68% coming through mobile and tablets combined.

Salmon's research finds that more than half (53%) of consumers say the biggest improvement technology has brought to their shopping experience is that it has made the shopping process "easier and more convenient", with more than eight million people (16% of the UK population) using digital technology every day to shop.

Half of those surveyed (49%) say technology - incorporating online, mobile and click & collect - has "made the shopping process faster". Nearly one in five men (18%) use online shopping in some form or another every day, compared to 16% of women.

Neil Stewart, ceo of Salmon, said: "We fully expect online orders - including mobile - to continue to increase. We predicted correctly that this would be the first year where mobile overtook desktop during the 'Black Fiveday' period and we're already seeing the same thing happening at Christmas this year.

"What's clear for UK shoppers, though, is that they crave convenience and efficiency above all else. For Christmas, shopping online and through mobile especially is a time-saver and means that families can spend more time with each other instead of navigating the busy high street."

Supporting these findings, a new survey by Qualtrics reveals that only 25% of UK consumers now do most of their Christmas shopping on the high street, down from 29% last year.

Entrepreneurs back the UK in latest IoD pollThere is still strong support for the UK as a place to start a business after the Brexit vote, according to a new poll of entrepreneurs by the Institute of Directors.

The IoD survey of nearly 200 entrepreneurs found that if they had to do it again, 85% would still pick Britain as the home for their business over other European cities.

However, the majority (57%) also said that the results of the referendum had made no impact on them so far; 8% said the impact had been positive while 34% said it had been negative.

Looking forward, 54% said leaving the EU would hinder the growth of their business, 17% said it would boost growth and 30% said it would have no effect.

By far the most important issues for the businesses polled were access to skilled employees - deemed very important by 53% - and digital infrastructure, which 47% considered very important. Other key factors included access to finance, business and personal taxes and the cost of labour.

Asked to assess the importance of key elements in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, respondents described the following as "very important":

  • securing continued membership of the single market in services (68%);
  • ensuring that EU citizens currently in the UK can remain here as residents (62%);
  • ensuring that - in future - UK start-ups have access to a wide pool of skills from the EU (61%);
  • securing continued membership of the single market in goods (57%);
  • ensuring grant funding remains available to UK research institutions and universities (57%).

Simon Walker, IoD director general, said: "The UK has created a healthy environment for entrepreneurs in recent years and this survey confirms that it is still a great place to set up a business. Brexit will inevitably pose challenges for new businesses, particularly in being able to recruit the right people to enable them to grow rapidly … Even after the UK leaves the EU, our immigration policy will have to remain open to the best and brightest from across the world.

"There is plenty our politicians could be doing now to help start-ups weather the uncertainty to come. Access to fast broadband speeds and adequate finance are headline issues for entrepreneurs, and should be priorities for the Government."

The SME Christmas: tinsel, turkey and tax returnsA record number of business owners submitted their self-assessment tax returns to HMRC on Christmas Day last year.

Despite the fact that the self-assessment tax deadline falls at the end of January, record numbers of people feel the holidays are the perfect time to file their tax returns online with HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

Government figures show that 2,044 business owners submitted self-assessment tax returns to HMRC on Christmas Day last year - a new record and a 13% increase on 2014. The most popular time for filing on Christmas Day is 12pm to 1pm - while many people are tucking into turkey and all the trimmings.

Meanwhile, 5,402 business owners chose to complete their self-assessment tax returns on Boxing Day 2015, while a record-breaking 24,546 people submitted their tax return online on New Year's Eve last year.

The findings suggest that the Christmas and New Year bank holidays may be one of the few times that busy business owners can find time to tackle their paperwork.

Ed Molyneux, ceo and co-founder of online accounting software specialist FreeAgent, said: "Christmas is quite a busy time for business owners, who have to juggle their social life along with their business responsibilities. Clearly, when Christmas starts to feel a bit much, completing a tax return can actually be a great opportunity to excuse yourself from the festivities and have some quiet time away from the hubbub."

What's more, getting it done in good time means business owners can hit the ground running in January, he added.

"The real benefit of filing a self-assessment tax return over the festive season is that business owners can have complete peace of mind for the new year and actually look forward to January, instead of scrambling at the last minute to meet the tax deadline at the end of the month," said Molyneux. "In addition to this, they can also spend more time concentrating on other parts of their businesses, which will leave them in a much better position for the rest of the next year."

FSB: Business groups and technology experts are joining Ofcom in calling for concerted action to deliver universal broadband in the UK.

Ofcom's 2016 Connected Nations report, released last week, revealed that while broadband coverage in the UK has improved, there are still 1.4 million homes and offices (5% of properties) that remain unable to sign up for broadband speeds over 10Mbit/s.

Steve Unger, Ofcom group director, said: "Too many people and businesses are still struggling for a good service. We think that is unacceptable. So we're challenging mobile operators to go beyond built-up areas, and provide coverage across the UK's countryside and transport networks. Today we've also provided technical advice to support the Government's plans for universal, decent broadband."

Nearly half a million (480,000) small businesses cannot access superfast broadband, with 192,000 not even being able to access 10 Mbps.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) is calling on the Government to deliver a Universal Service Obligation (USO) so that a basic level of broadband can be accessed by all small businesses by 2020.

Ofcom has now confirmed that the USO will ensure all small firms as well as UK homes have the right to a decent, affordable broadband connection of 10 Mbps or above by the end of the current parliament.

Mike Cherry, FSB national chairman, said: "Too many small businesses are held back by poor broadband coverage and slow speeds. The situation for many small businesses is urgent - there is no time for delay."

However, some commentators have said the Ofcom recommendations don't go far enough. Dave Millett of telecoms brokerage Equinox said: "Unfortunately, the report is remarkably unambitious. It proposes 5G should be in the UK by 2025, whereas Japan plans to have it ready for the 2020 Olympics."

The emphasis on premises served is also short-sighted, he said. "This is mobile technology, the clue is in the name. Outdoor coverage is far more important; look at signals on trains and on most of the UK roads - they are dreadful."

Millett suggests that future 5G licenses should be awarded on service. "The sale of the 5G licences should focus less on raising money and rather be linked to providing coverage the quickest," he said. "If winners don't meet their targets, they forfeit the licence."

Business groups and technology experts are joining Ofcom in calling for concerted action to deliver universal broadband in the UK.

High cost of disputes is damaging small firmsNew research from the Federation of Small Businesses shows disputes are costing small firms in England and Wales at least £11.6 billion each year.

The FSB's latest report, Tied Up: Unravelling the dispute resolution process for small firms, reveals the scale of disputes in the economy and the costs spent chasing debts. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of small business legal struggles are down to late or non-payment.

Most small firms (70%) have faced at least one dispute in recent years according to the research. On average, the amount under dispute is £18,000. It can cost a small business a further £17,000 in time and money to resolve the problem.

The consequences of disputes can be devastating for small businesses, ranging from short-term cashflow difficulties right up to insolvency. FSB is calling for a new approach to help small businesses prevent disputes from occurring in the first place and facilitate faster, fairer and cheaper resolution when they do.

Mike Cherry, FSB national chairman, said: "The dispute resolution process faced by small businesses in England and Wales is costly and complicated. Billions of pounds are flowing out of small business pockets as they try to claw back unpaid debts."

Small businesses are most likely to deal with a dispute informally or semi-formally (43%), according to the FSB research, either privately or using an adviser, such as a solicitor or an accountant.

However, nearly a fifth (19%) of firms took their most recent dispute to court. Only 8% used alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation or an arbitrator. Most concerning is that half a million businesses (17%) were left with their most recent dispute unresolved.

"Disputes are inevitable in business, but many small firms don't have the time or resources to deal with them effectively," said Cherry. "We want to see a beefed up system to bring about fewer disputes and faster resolutions for small firms."

The FSB's key recommendations are:

  • The new Small Business Commissioner should develop an online hub, providing guidance and support for SMEs to help prevent disputes or resolve them early;
  • Strengthening alternative dispute resolution (ADR) schemes;
  • Overhauling the civil courts fees system and introducing a specialist commercial track in the lowest courts to make it cheaper, quicker and fairer for small firms.

Indies get sales surge on Small Business SaturdayThe latest data on this year's Small Business Saturday event proves that the campaign has a significant impact on small business sales in the run-up to Christmas.

This year's Small Business Saturday took place on 3 December; an estimated £717 million was spent with small firms across the UK on the day, up 15% on last year. Over half (57%) of those aware of the day said they spent more than usual.

The data comes from a new survey conducted by American Express; it has found that positive reaction to Small Business Saturday was also evident across social media with Small Business Saturday UK trending at number one in the UK and at number five globally. Over 130,000 tweets were sent on the day itself reaching more than 140 million people.

Michelle Ovens, Small Business Saturday campaign director, said: "In its fourth year, Small Business Saturday has once again delivered a sustained increase in spending with Britain's small independent businesses. To see the spend on Small Business Saturday reach £249 million more this year than on the first Saturday in 2013 … is fantastic and confirms the positive stories we are hearing from small businesses in communities across the UK."

Alice Noone, vice president marketing at American Express, said: "Small Business Saturday celebrates the vital contribution independent businesses make to our communities and we're delighted that shoppers rewarded them with such significant spend on the day."

Many small businesses saw a significant uplift in sales. Rowena Howie, owner of Revival Retro, said: "Not only did we have more new shoppers and a higher footfall this year, we also saw a 35% increase in sales compared to the same Saturday last year."

Carolyn Frank, owner of Libby Butler Jewellers in Helmsley, near York, said: "This year was absolutely the biggest and best yet. It's not just the day, people are more aware of small businesses all year round because of it."

Over 80% of all local authorities actively supported the campaign, staging or supporting small business events and offering free parking.

New analysis of ecommerce websites has found that many are missing a trick when it comes to digital personalisation.

A report by Mapp Digital analysed the digital marketing methods of the top 50 leading ecommerce brands in the UK; its findings have implications for ecommerce businesses of all sizes.

The study tracked ecommerce brand behaviour for a month in 2016 and focused on three key channels (email, mobile apps and social media). It found that relatively few of the UK's top ecommerce companies are making the most of user preferences, personalisation and optimisation across devices.

The findings show that 96% use email as their primary form of marketing communication but only 26% personalise their emails. Meanwhile, 60% personalise the web experience but just 2% use a personal approach in their mobile apps.

"All data no action summarises the broad approach we're seeing from the UK's top ecommerce brands," said Rolf Anweiler, senior vice president marketing at Mapp. "But broad is no good when it comes to marketing in a digital revolution, when customers' relationships with brands are changing to an 'always on' culture, and you explicitly ask for information about them."

Many brands are still more nine-to-five than 24/7 when it comes to marketing, he added. "With the proliferation of channels, devices, and technologies comes a great opportunity for marketers. At the moment, though, most are being bland, formulaic and not quite delivering."

Key findings from the study include:

  • 94% of those analysed sent at least one email to their customer base during the study;
  • 78% of emails were not fully responsive so the mobile email experience was very limited;
  • Only 13% of brands assessed had a preference centre on their website, inhibiting personalisation of messages and content;
  • Only 11% of brands with mobile apps connected the dots between digital channels (for example, by enabling social sign-in);
  • 92% of brands have a mobile app and most seek permission to send notifications but only 17% actually delivered a message during the study.

"Never has having a consistent strategy been more important, nor has combining the data from the multitude of digital channels to create a holistic view of the customer. It is - or should be - simple to deliver highly bespoke messages. Marketers today have all the tools to achieve this," said Anweiler.

New analysis of ecommerce websites has found that many are missing a trick when it comes to digital personalisation.

Mapping late payment across the UKLate payment is a problem facing almost every freelancer and micro-business but new research reveals that some parts of the UK are affected more than others.

New data from cloud accounting software company FreeAgent has found that in Sheffield, for example, just 24% of micro-business invoices were paid on time in 2015 compared to neighbouring Manchester, where 75% of invoices were paid on time.

Across the UK as a whole, 51% of invoices sent by UK micro-businesses last year were paid on time.

Ed Molyneux, ceo and co-founder of FreeAgent, said: "We know that late payment is a huge issue for the UK economy, but our research shows just how widespread it is for the freelance and micro-business sector.

"We found that just half of the invoices sent by micro-businesses across the UK get paid late, while there are certain hotspots where the problem is even more prevalent. And this isn't just clients taking an extra week or two to pay - it also includes the chronic late payers who sit on invoices for months, as well as those who just don't pay at all."

Sheffield tops the list of late payment hotspots, followed by Twickenham (where just 27% get paid on time), Slough (29%), Leeds (39%) and Stevenage (39%).

Manchester is the top performer for timely payments, with 75% of invoices paid on time, followed by Aberdeen (61%), York (61%), Leicester (58%) and Norwich (58%).

The Government is to appoint a small business commissioner to look specifically at the problem of late payment for small firms.

"It's certainly good news that the Government recognises the late payment problem and is consulting over the appointment of a small business commissioner to tackle the issue," said Molyneux. "However, I fear that whoever is appointed will have limited power to actually punish companies who routinely pay late, aside from just naming and shaming them.

"Micro-business owners need to get paid promptly to keep their cashflow healthy and most don't have the luxury of being able to absorb a late or non-payment in their accounts. We need to see a complete cultural shift when it comes to paying invoices, so that these types of smaller businesses are not put at risk."

The top admin time-wasters revealed

Professionals spend almost one day a week (6.8 hours) on office administration according to new research by Adobe. Its survey of 7,000 professionals across Europe found that basic office tasks such as printing and emailing documents are the biggest time culprits (96%). In addition, 65% of those polled said searching for lost documents was a regular time-waster. "Outdated processes are draining employee productivity and morale - potentially leading to a loss of revenue and a poor customer experience," said John Travis, vice president of EMEA marketing at Adobe.

Commuters plan to cut back on travel in 2017

After more strikes this week, commuters are saying enough is enough, according to a new poll from Regus. It shows that over half of all workers are re-thinking their travel arrangements for 2017, with 58% of 1,700 UK professionals polled looking to "work remotely in order to improve their travel schedule". Three million workers regularly face commutes of over two hours and train fares are set to increase by an average of 2.3% from January 2017. Richard Morris, Regus UK ceo, said: "Workers are no longer willing to accept the stress and expense of the commute and are looking at flexible working solutions that enable them to gain this time back, work nearer to home and enhance productivity."

Rising theft is driving video surveillance sales

With 38% of small businesses reporting that they have suffered a break-in or theft at their business premises, the use of video surveillance is set to rise in the small business sector. A poll of 500 UK small business owners by Axis Communications reveals that four out of five small firms are looking to improve their security arrangements. The findings show that 82% of video surveillance users are considering replacing their existing system with more up-to-date technology. Of those that do not have video surveillance in place, 39% are considering implementing it in the next two years.

BCC upgrades growth forecast … for now

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has upgraded its UK GDP growth forecast from 1.8% to 2.1% for 2016, and from 1% to 1.1% in 2017. However, it has downgraded expectations for 2018 from 1.8% to 1.4%. After a better than anticipated 2016, the current level of economic momentum is set to slow over the next two years according to the BCC, as continued uncertainty around the UK's future relationship with the EU and higher inflation are expected to dampen growth in the medium term.

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