Receiving the Retail Activist award at the Retail Week Awards last month was one of the proudest moments of my career.
I was so honoured to be recognised for something I’m deeply passionate about, especially looking at the amazing achievements of the other retail leaders on the shortlist.
Reflecting on the award, maybe I had a head start because we’ve always had to be activists at Ann Summers. I am probably the only chief executive who has received a bullet in the post, taken on landlords and councils for refusing us leases, and even taken the government to the High Court to demonstrate our suitability to advertise in job centres. Needless to say, we won.
Google would not consider Amazon ‘non family safe’. Google would not impose the same restrictions on Amazon as on us
Our battles with landlords and local authorities are a distant memory. Today, Ann Summers is recognised as a positive contributor to the communities where we have stores, a responsible retailer and a business whose very reason to exist is to empower women in both the bedroom and the boardroom. We’ve come a long way.
There is one place, however, where the playing field hasn’t been levelled. It’s the most important marketplace for all retailers today – the internet.
You can’t have escaped the recent coverage of Google’s anti-competitive practices, most recently the €1.5bn fine imposed by the EU last week for abusing its position in the online advertising market – the third huge fine imposed by the EU on Google in recent years. It’s a story I read with great interest.
Computer says no
We are proud of our stores, which are fighting hard in tough market conditions, while our party plan operation continues to go from strength to strength. But our online business is nowhere near where it should be.
The reason is simple: Google has an unfair bias towards Ann Summers’ domain name, making us significantly harder to find online than our lingerie competitors. Customers looking for our biggest category, lingerie, are actively diverted away from finding our website – even if we shut up shop tomorrow and started selling sofas, this prejudice would not change.
In a recent Google search for ‘Ann Summers lingerie’ – in organic search, ignoring paid – we were served Very, Amazon, Asos, Debenhams, Simply Be, House of Fraser and eBay before you got to our website, which sits depressingly on page two.
I won’t stand by and let Google dictate the future of our online business – there’s too much riding on this for us and other retailers
Google’s argument is that Ann Summers is an adult retailer – ‘non family safe’ to use its terminology. Yes, we sell sex toys. But let me be clear, the products we are talking about in this context are our mainstream lingerie range. And, of course, we do not want to put inappropriate products in front of children.
We have offered to work with Google to find a constructive way of adapting our site, but the answer is always ‘computer says no’.
Here’s the irony. Ann Summers has a range of 293 sex toys. Amazon has over 50,000 sex products, many of them considerably more adult in their nature than those we sell.
Yet Google would not consider Amazon ‘non family safe’. Google would not impose the same restrictions on Amazon as it does on us. So, the good news is, Google’s policy prevents my nine-year-old daughter searching for a sex toy from Ann Summers, but the bad news is she can buy a gimp mask from Amazon – in fact, Alexa will even order it for her.
Abuse of power
Fundamentally this comes down to the US-based giants of the online world, whose policies are outdated for today’s much-changed retail market where sex toys are readily available from brands as mainstream as Superdrug, Boots, Sainsbury’s and Nasty Gal. They are giving our competitors an unfair advantage.
Even worse, Google changes the rules if we pay. If we were to bid on the search term ‘toys’ – something we would never do – our sex toy range would appear next to Smyths Toys, Hamleys and Argos. It gives the lie to any suggestion Google are doing this because they care about what children see.
You might think this is just an Ann Summers problem. But every day in the media we see how the tech giants are abusing their power by making arbitrary decisions to the disadvantage of smaller and less powerful businesses. I can’t imagine for a moment we are the only ones affected.
Ann Summers has fought plenty of battles before. In the past, the battleground was the high street; today, it’s online. If anything, this battle is our biggest yet and I won’t stand by and let Google dictate the future of our online business – there’s too much riding on this for us and for other retailers too.
We stood up to the authorities and we stood up to the government. Today, we’re standing up to Google.