In the headlines:, eBay and Argos

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An underwhelming new government website, eBay in the tax avoidance dock and Argos taking Amazon on at its own game all hit the headlines this week. Steven Perryman clicks his way through this week’s news

1. Public sector: GovUK website launches (minus Kelly Brook)

London 2012. Remember that? When we all talked to strangers on the Tube, the weather was sunny and we all thought we could run a sub-30 minute 10,000m, Mo-style?

The Olympics was dragged one last time into the public consciousness this week (well, until Sports Personality of the Year in December) with news that the ‘summer like no other’ actually came in £377m under budget. In the same week that news broke of the economy growing in the third quarter of this year, it’s Mobot time at Whitehall it seems.

Or maybe not, given that only this week the National Audit Office has slammed Whitehall’s budgeting system, saying it is still not good at demonstrating whether spending decisions represent value for money.

Speaking of value for money: who remembers the £2m TV advert the Government used to launch its Directgov website three years ago (hint: Suggs and Kelly Brook were in it)? Thought not. Here’s a reminder:

Its production cost rightly caused a furore at the time, even if getting a glamour model into an advert for a Government website was admirable work by the marketing agency. It was therefore with interest that we noticed that the Government has now disbanded the site and given it a new name and look: GovUK. The move will save an estimated £70m a year and there wasn’t a glamour model in sight for the launch, either.

The new site certainly looks cheaper. The content certainly is. This week esteemed luminaires from the accounting world have been pouring scorn on the content of the new site via the UK Business Forums website. One of the glaring errors involves information about registering for self assessment. Nice timing guys, especially with the deadline for paper tax returns under a week away.

2. Tax: eBay can’t take spotlight off of Starbucks

The end of the Olympics has left such a hole on the news agenda websites in the UK have seen a slide in visitors since it finished. It’s no surprise, then, that they continue to try and fill the void with tax avoidance stories on high profile brands.

This week it was eBay’s turn with news that it has paid £1.2m in tax in the UK despite generating sales of £800m. How Starbucks must feel aggrieved. It continues to be the case in point, despite the auction site taking some heat.

Only this week AAT’s Adam Harper wrote a letter to The Guardian bemoaning the American coffee chain’s ethical hypocrisy – big on coffee production, not on paying UK tax. Accountancy Age (AA) waded into the debate, pointing out that tax is paid on profits, not turnover, and that the Starbucks story has been a result of skewed figures. Perhaps the guys over at AA just like their Pumpkin Spice Latte’s a little too much.

One thing this glut of tax avoidance stories has shown is that there is a strong ethical conundrum facing those who work in finance. AAT Ethics, a new website which looks at a host of ethical dilemmas including tax avoidance, was launched this week.

3. Retail: Argos vs Amazon (17 years too late)

Whisper it quietly, but the festive season is nearly upon us. And that means one thing: shopping.

Apple fired the starting pistol this week with the launch of the iPad Mini – an obvious attempt to fight off Google and Amazon from the tablet market it holds a 70% share in. The reception was tepid – with some finding the price point wrong for the product; others rightly pointing out that the late Steve Jobs’s thoughts on smaller tablets were hardly complimentary.

All in all it’s not been a good week for Amazon. Hot on the heels of the Apple launch is news it has been wiping some of its customers’ Kindle accounts without letting them know. Not wanting to be outdone by Starbucks, Facebook or eBay, the online retailer has also hit the tax headlines for forcing British publishers to cover the 20% VAT costs on ebook sales, despite the Luxembourg-registered company paying just 3% to the tax regime there.

One piece of news that shouldn’t bring out too many cold sweats at Amazon HQ is news that UK catalogue retailer Argos is shifting towards an online business.

The retailer announced this week that laminated catalogues, pens and paper will be banished from its shops and replaced by technology such as web browsers, with the prime purpose of the stores to be collection points for products already ordered online. It’s a move that will disappoint Michael McIntyre, who has a segment of his stand-up routine dedicated to the catalogue-based madness of buying anything in its stores.

And don’t tell the retailer’s new Managing Director, John Walden, that another company beginning with ‘A’ has been doing what he’s proposing since 1995. It’s also interesting to note that Amazon’s name was chosen so it would always appear high in an alphabetical list. Time to drop the ‘r’ from the company name, John?

And finally: Goldman Sachs banker’s expose bombs

Remember Greg Smith, the man who resigned from his job at Goldman Sachs not by handing in his notice, but by writing a scathing editorial for the New York Times? He’s back and, unsurprisingly, cashing in on his notoriety.

He has released a book of his experience at the bank – imaginatively titled Why I Left Goldman Sachs – and with it has received an advance of $1.5m from his publisher. It’s already looking like money badly spent. Reviews of the book have been damning across the board with, ironically, the New York Times among the most vociferous. Who’s the ‘muppet’ now, Greg?

Steven Perryman is AAT’s Editorial Manager

Steven Perryman is AAT Comment's former Content Editor.

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