Local-born US-based businessman Ashley Christmas is expressing the view that the e-commerce trade now popular in developed countries, will remain stagnant in the Caribbean until Caricom leaders hammer out and agree on policies critical to the effective implementation of a digital platform to facilitate this new area of business. He said an integral part of that process must be drafting, adopting and ultimately enforcing laws to deal with Internet fraud, for this aspect of commerce to thrive. Christmas, the lead designer and CEO of EarthMember4Life.com, said international merchants were weary of transactions emanating from this part of the world and that the best solution was to build confidence among these leading retailers through the enactment of stringent policies that stamped out fraud. He also called on regional heads to explore, with urgency, the possibility of standardising the operating procedures at Caricom ports of call, to support this emerging aspect of business.
“The promise of on time delivery and the promise that you will even get the delivery is the issue of customs in each jurisdiction. We talk about a free trade Caribbean, but it really isn’t. “You only find these things out when you start doing commerce within the Caribbean. So apart from the fraud within Web sites where security issues are concerned, which has a lot to do with the banking systems and people being able to infiltrate the banking systems, there is also infiltrating people’s pertinent information pertaining to credit cards,” he said. Christmas added: “If we should pay attention to our free trade Caribbean in the true sense and really have people being able to trade goods and services, then that would drive more on-line presence and people being able to do a true e-commerce site and have the true benefits of it.” When he established the New Jersey-based company four years ago, Christmas was firm in his belief that the enterprise had to be virtual.
Personal experiences during that time, had given him an acute insight into the challenges associated with Internet purchasing within the Caribbean, sparking concerns related to security and delivery of goods. Failing to solve these issues, would hinder growth in this emerging sector. He said: “So what you have been finding is, that a lot of people within the Caribbean, that have the ability to have local credit cards, with international access, have been shopping more on the American sites. Then they will use a skybox, for delivery and they will get their stuff. “That is hampering not just fashion within the Caribbean, but commerce within the Caribbean. It has to be a regional movement where, Internet security it concerned and that has a lot to do with banking. Once we have that, then we have to work on the boundaries we have, with all the different customs agencies we have within the Caribbean. We have to loosen that up a little bit, then we would benefit from the true e-commerce boom in the Caribbean.”
When Christmas took the online approach to his business, his aim was to be a trendsetter, which he achieved. While the concept was still novel in the minds of numerous fashion houses, regionally, he wanted to exploit the exponential benefits associated to this form of commerce. Online retail sales in the United States in 2012, grossed $200 billion. The forecast for 2016 was likely to exceed $327 billion. He liked the fact that potential consumers can assess the virtual 24/7 store, but realised that EarthMember4Life’s customer service and support had to equal or surpass that of walk-in stores. Even though the Internet is the primary source for buying his tropical styled originals, Christmas, understood, not everyone was tech-savvy which meant he needed to make the Caribbean lines that cater for both sexes accessible, hence his seasonal showrooms in New Jersey and New York. The Trinidad showroom is based in Woodbrook. In Tobago, it’s at Mt Irvine Bay, but by appointment only.
Choosing the on-line option did not come without its challenges, he said, citing customers had to first find the brand and then drive traffic to the site. Most of his sales are generated in the United States, but the revenue stream was seasonal. That, however, was about to change. “The Caribbean sales can match or sometimes rival the American sales because I can sell twelve months a year in the Caribbean. So, what I have been trying to do is heighten my Web presence within the United States, which has a cost factor to it and try to set myself up where I can do sales in the United States, but in the northern part when it’s warm and also do sales on the southern part of the planet when it’s also warm, so I can also do twelve months out of the year in temperate areas and not just depend on the Caribbean only,” Christmas said.
Defining his clientele
At first, he thought his clientele would have been between the ages, 19-30. He has since learnt that they extend into the 40-something age group. “When you do back end research on your Web site, it tells you who is shopping, where they’re shopping from, the age bracket and most of the time the income bracket, based on their shopping habits. The platform my Web site is built on, is called magenta. “The magenta platform captures all this information from a client, so you could then start tracing the habits of your clientele: where is strong, where is weak and where you need to focus on more. So that’s how you can pretty much judge what’s going on. “You can know the kind of people that are going to the site (and) how the marketing is going, because you’re trying to get as much information as possible from your client, so you know how to cater for them for the upcoming season,” he explained.
Christmas would not say if based on his business model, whether EarthMember 4Life had met or surpassed expectations.
“I can’t say it’s surpassed for a couple different reasons. We suffered a global economic downturn which everybody felt the effects of, including me. I’m not going to sit here and say yes, my business is booming, but I haven’t declined in any major way,” he said.
T&T’s fashion dilemma
Fashion designers, with massive egos, are stifling the growth of T&T’s fashion industry said Christmas, who was an original board member of Fashion Week T&T (FWTT). He’s convinced that while potential for growth in this creative industry which was still at the infancy stage, was ripe, a lack of respect remained the biggest hindrance. “What I think we are lacking here is, everybody working in unison, everybody recognising that everybody in every aspect and every spectrum of fashion has something positive to bring to the table. So whether you have been in the industry for 30 years, in T&T or you have been here for two or three years, everybody has to practice humility and understand that while I have been in it for 30 years, the guy that has been in it for three of four years, might have something new to bring to me, where we both can meet in the middle and everybody benefit from it. The challenges that we face here is ego. I talking off the cuff and I’m talking plain. We have a serious ego (problem) in T&T, as it pertains to fashion,” Christmas declared.