In the sense that it’s a characteristic of human society, shopping is by definition a social activity. It’s a long-lived one, too. There are well-documented remains of shops and markets from ancient Egypt, Greece, China and Rome.
Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets from nearly 5,000 years ago contain lists of purchased goods and foodstuffs, including descriptions of cuts of meat and types of honey. Those goods would have been bought from travelling traders, often in boats, as well as in markets.
Shopping will also always have been social in its modern, Internet sense of a collaborative activity. Down the millennia, commerce will have involved discussion, no matter how terse, between buyers and sellers. Shouted offers, haggling, jokes, news of bargains, insults, complaints and all the tumult of today’s street markets would have been common in any age.
Online shopping begins
Zooming forward to the late 20th century, we see the beginnings of online shopping by consumers with the adoption of videotex services in the late 1970s and onwards. These were centrally managed, interactive systems that sent text and crude graphics to computer or television screens.
Videotex was nationally bounded and slow, with communication mainly between buyer and seller. One of the most popular systems was the French Minitel service, notorious for its Messageries Rose. Ooh lah lah! It is in use even today but mainly as an online telephone directory.
Business-to-business (B2B) online trading at this time was mostly managed through EDI – Electronic Data Interchange. These were batch systems, whose origins lay in the pre-computer days of the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949. One of the earliest B2B interactive services was a videotex system for British travel agents.
Meanwhile, text conferencing systems such as bulletin boards, the WELL and CompuServe provided non-visual shopping but with plenty of scope for discussion among buyers. These were, in the jargon, walled gardens, unable to link with one other.
The creation of the Internet in 1983 was the basis for the popularity of Usenet, an open communication system. Again, this was for text only but had worldwide coverage and no entry fees. Images were transferable but not visible.
Opportunities from the Web
By the mid-1990s, the World Wide Web and graphical browsers such as Mosaic showed the way forward. Here was an irresistible combination of speed, cheapness, simple standards, ease of use, interactivity, graphical content and near ubiquity. “Ecommerce” (electronic commerce) became a hot topic, with “etailing” being a less popular term for selling solely to consumers.
Customised selling in volume became practicable. The holy text of the time was the 1997 book, Enterprise One to One: Tools for Competing in the Interactive Age, by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers. BroadVision’s ecommerce software was the word made code.
The possibility for mass customisation of products was largely ignored except by companies like Dell and Toyota. Instead, most Web traders used the medium for customised marketing of pre-existing products.
Amazon and eBay helped lead the way and have remained successful. Amazon’s worldwide net sales for 2009 were $24.5 billion; eBay’s net revenues were $8.7 billion for the same year. (Figures from their retrospective SEC 10-K reports.)
Here in Britain, the top online retailers for the first week of January 2010 were eBay UK, Amazon UK, Argos, Play.com, John Lewis, Tesco and Next (details from Experian Hitwise). Grocery shopping via the Web is now routine for Britons; you see Tesco, Sainsbury’s [sic] and Ocado delivery vans everywhere.
In part 2
Online shopping is now an accepted part of the commercial landscape. In part 2, I’ll look at how retailers are using geography and people’s contacts to propel the next wave of shopping innovations.