GAP trouble provides important message for online businesses

Children in India have been making clothes for the retailer GAP, in spite of the company’s well publicised policy on not using child labour. Now the company has launched an investigation into the incident. However, the company could have easily avoided this embarrassment with two simple pieces of technology – web cams in the factories where their clothes are manufactured and radio frequency chips (RFID) which identify specific items. Together, these two pieces of technology could prove to the bosses in the USA that a particular garment was made by the people they were watching on their computer screens back home.

Clearly, GAP did not invest in a technological solution. Instead, they appear to have assumed that the contracts they signed with suppliers in India will have been honoured. They assumed, it seems, that because their contracts forbid the use of child labour this would be the case. They did not appear to take into account that people might lie, that people will find loopholes and ways out of contractual obligations, or that people will act in their own self interest.

In other words, GAP appears to have got itself into trouble by concentrating on legal issues and policies rather than predicting the way people would behave. It made assumptions that everyone behaves the same way. Assumption is the enemy of success.

Online, businesses assume all sorts of things. Retailers assume that people use web sites the same way as they do physical shops. Email marketers assume that people read emails the same way as they read direct marketing letters. Web site owners assume that people are not interested in the price, only the “solution”. Assumptions, assumptions, assumptions – and they all lead to poorer business results.

So if we can learn anything from the GAP difficulties, it is to never assume anything. Consider your online business from every angle – but particularly work out and find out what people will do with your web site. Don’t assume they will do what you want them to do.

Oh – and one other thing – as a part time lecturer in childhood studies, it’s clear to me what could well happen to those children in the GAP factories. They may be taken off the clothing production lines and made to work in far more dangerous situations, including child prostitution. Companies have a policy that pleases their customers back home because it seems immoral to have child workers. However, without putting in place alternatives for the economically destitute in the poorest parts of the world, these children face even more intolerable situations. Once again, GAP appears to have assumed that by banning their products from being made by children that the children will not work. The sad fact is that for many of these children they are much better off emotionally, physically and economically by making GAP’s clothes. Even so, they are in a much, much worse position than they ought to be, of course. Sad, but true.

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