On-line shopping for all, urges think-tank

With half of all shopping forecast to be done electronically in less than 20 years, we are on the brink of a `trading revolution'. A new report suggests that by government and technology working together, cheap, high-quality goods can be available for all at the push of a button. Glenda Cooper, Social Affairs Correspondent, reports.

Susan wants someone to look after her children for the afternoon, so she switches on her interactive TV and goes to the childcare page where she can select a police-vetted childminder.

Before she goes out, however, she needs to mow the lawn, so she turns to another page which informs her of mowers to hire nearby, the cheapest rates and availability of delivery.

Meanwhile, up the road in Stockport, three coach drivers have got together to lease a 52-seater bus which they operate around the Manchester area. Potential passengers can book tickets through their computer where the drivers advertise the times of journeys.

Sounds like an impossible dream? According to the think tank Demos this could all become reality in the next couple of decades as teleshopping becomes the norm.

Next autumn, British Interactive Broadcasting, part owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International, launches in Britain offering fully-fledged home shopping at the touch of a button. However, Demos argues that the Government must help set up what it calls "guaranteed electronic markets" [GEMs] or "people's marketing" which will ensure that the disadvantaged are not excluded from this trading revolution. At present, teleshopping stands to benefit big companies with well known brands, large databases and the funds to afford the steep start-up costs.

GEMs, however, would be set up as a collaboration between the Government and the private sector, establishing a central computer running thousands of "marketplaces" - like teleshopping systems in which anyone can buy or sell.

The GEM would include a standard contract to make deals such as hiring a childminder or buying a ticket legally binding, and would make sure that people had been vetted.

For example, when Susan wants a childminder she would switch on her interactive TV and go to the childcare site. Selecting daycare, she specifies the time for which her two children need to be looked after. The system calculates the lowest price for that in her area.

All childminders registered have to have police clearance and have been vetted. Susan can look at how many times the carer has been hired, if there are any complaints made against her and at her qualifications. If Susan wants to hire the carer, she clicks on the contract page where a legally- binding contract is laid out.

The author of the report, Wingham Rowan, says that the Government, by setting up the GEMs, would prevent people becoming excluded from the benefits of electronic trading by opening up a huge marketplace for small business and sole traders.

"We stand on the brink of an electronic revolution as momentous as the information revolution," said Mr Rowan. "This could have huge social and economic costs unless steps are taken to include everyone - from the affluent and technologically literate to the marginalised and disadvantaged.

"Setting up GEMs offers new ways to harness electronic trading so that it provides benefits for everyone not just an elite. If the true economic and social potential of electronic commerce is to be liberated, government must play a leading role."

l Guaranteed electronic markets: the backbone of a twenty first century economy? by Wingham Rowan is available from Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4V 6AP, pounds 14.95 plus 60p p&p