Maybe you can remember the first ecommerce transactions back in 1994 – either through Pizzahut, or a guy called Dan who sold a CD to his friend through his website NetMarket, using a credit card protected by encryption technology?
The CD was by Sting, so could now also be viewed as a somewhat early, cautionary tale of the perils of online shopping.
Fast forward 20-something years and it’s simply mind-blowing to consider how far the industry has come. Ecommerce has developed from information pages and basic till systems, to full-on consumer experiences.
But now, imagine taking a hammer, if you will - and smashing one of these websites into thousands of pieces.
The future of ecommerce is certain to make the sites of today look as out-dated and ridiculous as those dull pages of text that started the ball rolling in the first place.
Back to the beginning
Back in the early 90s, early websites were often a collection of the website owner’s ramblings, not dissimilar to the blogs of today. The photos were tiny, so small in fact, that even with the aid of a magnifying glass you were unable to make out what they were supposed to be. Uploading any image bigger than the size of a coin would break your computer, you were told, or could take a few weeks to upload at the very least.
Some innovative businesses saw the possibilities and their websites were used like an online version of the Yellow Pages. Fonts often looked like a child’s first words, graphics rare, photographs terrible and backgrounds, brown and dull.
“What’s a website?” some shop owners would croak. “Why would I need one of them, I’m doing fine, who uses that internet anyway?!”
The first ecommerce transaction wasn’t far behind, but most people never thought ecommerce would dovetail so spectacularly with, or even take over in many cases from, the bricks and mortar shopping experience we were used to.
We have, of course, moved on from ecommerce being this very nuts and bolts, basic thing, to becoming the centre of every brand’s core strategy. The store lies at its heart. It tussles with the brand, but there’s no smart brand on earth that doesn’t put transactional technology at its core, with everything else, from brand, to storytelling, to social, to communication, hanging off it. Omni channel retailing – a fully-integrated approach to commerce across online and offline channels – is where it’s all at.
But websites and user experiences are evolving and changing all the time.
Whereas a department store curates its products, we live in a time of the curated web. Brands do the thinking for you. They provide landscapes of products and ideas for you to shop in.
A brand like Top Shop will carefully curate what it thinks are the most interesting ideas out there in the world and create or buy in products to fit this idea. Consumers want recommendations as well as their own thoughts.
The future of ecommerce?
Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends report earlier this year spoke of data now being the main driving force behind commerce.
Recognised as one of the world’s top internet and tech commentators, she spoke of the rise in personalised ecommerce offering curated products and 24/7 recommendations, with Amazon and Stitch Fix two brands leading the way.
Stitch Fix, for instance, gathers data on the core elements of what a customer believes is stylish and then, using algorithms and much more, delivers personalised recommendations on clothing based on these. The company has grown to a multi-billion dollar public company in seven years and is launching in the UK next year.
Meeker also points to Spotify as a case study in the effective use in personalisation. The music company’s data-driven ‘New Releases for You’ section presents new songs based on the listener’s tastes, leading to a massive rise in unique artist listening.
With this in mind, the idea of any one, single website can seem limited. There is so much data around that the future of ecommerce could see the consumer become their very own self-curated, global digital centre of gravity.
Imagine, again, smashing a website into a thousand pieces - all the products themselves becoming micro-websites, each with full transactional functionality and content.
In this scenario, every product and idea would be unchained and free from structure, able to roam the web looking for new, interested people to engage.
By understanding your Facebook ‘likes’, Google searches, your style, the tastes of your friends, your past transactions and so on, you could have your own AI curation going on across the whole web.
Consumers, for instance, get lots of ideas of what to buy from influencers and brands on Instagram. But imagine if a brand, or AI, had the power to send you micro websites of the things you are looking for. Instead of having to search website after website, you could be sent pictures that are self-contained, micro-websites. In one picture you could have the whole history and heritage of that brand and shopping experience combined.
This self-contained micro website service could be shown across any platform, anywhere. In effect, we would be setting products loose from the confines of what we now think of as websites. Swarms of digital products swirling in the digital ether - being attracted to, shared and commented on, by interested individuals.
Brands could still curate, in order to filter out the magnitude of this information swimming around digitally.
But influencers would also be able to put their own ranges and ideas together and even become retailers themselves across multiple platforms and brands.
In the same way Youtube has allowed people to become creator and consumer at the same time, earning money as they go, this range of micro-sites in the not too distant future could allow everyone to become a distributor and retailer of everyone else’s products.
“Do you remember when websites were single platform experiences?” my blog in five years might begin. “Do you remember when people used Google to search for the items they wanted to buy, wasn’t it hard work?! Can you believe people still used credit cards for their online transactions?”
The story of ecommerce is only just beginning – and its future might well be here sooner than you think.