An eCommerce Retrospective: Ten Summoner's Tales, Twenty Years Later
by Amanda Nichols
20 years ago the world changed. On August 11, 1994 Phil Brandenberger paid $12.48 plus shipping for Sting’s “Ten Summoner’s Tales” and made history as the very first online shopper. One year later Amazon.com and AuctionWeb (later to become eBay) both embarked on a historic journey to become the power-houses they are today.
20 years ago. Wow. Not only does that make me feel incredibly old, but I can’t help thinking about what has happened and what has changed since Phil’s pioneering purchase.
It’s been one hell of a ride. From pets.com and its famous sock puppet to the infamous Toys "R" Us Christmas debacle, we’ve seen it all as retailers have charged into the unknown and fumbled their way through the beginnings of eCommerce, with some emerging as leaders and others not so much.
The underlying technology has had similar stops and starts. Today, I’m sitting on my brand-new company-issued MacBook Air working on a wireless network fast enough that it’s not worth mentioning. As I think back to Phil’s purchase I can’t help but think of this sound. If you’re over the age of 20, you know what I’m talking about. As internet speeds evolved, so did mechanisms for shopping online. In the late 1990s eCommerce shops like BroadVision and Blue Martini were paving the way to bring online shopping to the masses. By the time 2000 hit, both GSI Commerce and ATG (then known as Global Sports and Art Technology Group) had launched fledgling eCommerce platforms. Over the last 14 years eCommerce technology has expanded and matured to include any type of device you can get your hands on. It’s hard to imagine what’s next on the digital shopping horizon.
Or is it?
I feel like we are on the verge of another shopping disruption. eCommerce has matured to the point where commerce as usual is, well, boring. According to Forrester Research, top priorities for retailers in 2014 are improving eCommerce platforms, WCM tools and mobile platforms. That’s all well and good, but it seems retailers are simply fighting to stay afloat. Where’s the innovation? Where’s the wow? Where is the next Phil?
As young millennials and those who follow enter this crazy world of commerce and begin to lead it, they will bring with them change. They will no longer accept the silos of commerce vs. brand experiences and online vs. in-store shopping. They will envision a new world where the shopper is at the center and is able to use both online and offline tools, regardless of their location. In fact, it’s already beginning.
Brands like Warby Parker and Bonobos are already breaking this mold. These brands started out as online only, but have both evolved into the physical world. Bonobos offers up a ‘Guideshop’ where shoppers are invited in to a physical location to try on items, and then purchases are shipped from a warehouse to the customers’ home. This is a revolutionary solution to one of the greatest problems of physical retail – holding inventory. Holding inventory is one of the largest investments and risks a retailer takes on today. Managing inventory between stores, dedicating valuable floor space to a stock room, holding 15 pairs of size 6 jeans… all of this takes an extraordinary amount of logistics, planning and space. Bonobos has managed to solve for this problem by taking the traditional physical retail model and turning it on its head by employing digital-first retail tactics and methodologies.
The Bonobos model is bound to be picked up by mainstream retailers sooner or later. However convenient online shopping may be, consumers enjoy going to stores. For many, myself included, shopping is fun. I love spending a Saturday afternoon with a few girlfriends wandering through the shops on Newbury Street in Boston. We buy a few things we can’t really afford, grab a cocktail (or two) and have good old fashion girl-time.
So what if consumers can go to a physical retailer and enjoy all there is to enjoy about shopping, while having all of the modern-day conveniences of the digital shopping experience?
A few weeks ago CNBC published a pretty lengthy article on what the mall of 2039 will look like. Now, I don’t agree with everything they called out (full body scanners that take your measurements? Um… how airport-security creepy is that?), some are so logical it’s almost surprising this hasn’t happened yet. Simple things like limiting inventory on the floor so the shopper can browse clutter-free, then allowing them to scan a product they’d like to try on then walk back to the fitting rooms already filled with items they’ve chosen.
And it’s not just the physical store that’s changing; it’s the entire retail landscape. Consumers are fleeing drab sun-less malls for modern ‘Main Street’ shopping experiences filled with restaurants, movie theaters and yoga studios. “No longer is it enough to have a collection of stores," said Daymon's Morris. "You have to have a community experience that's a draw for your target audience to come." This sentiment was recently echoed by Staples CEO Ronald Sargent when he told investors that stores "have to earn the right to stay open".
In both physical and digital retail, consumers are demanding an experience. Shopping for shopping’s sake is no longer good enough, and retailers are challenged to enhance, and eventually merge, these disparate experiences as the fight for the leader board grows more intense with each technological innovation. As we evolve our technology and commerce offering here at Acquia, we have our eye on the larger prize – creating the underlying technology that will help brands continue to innovate and evolve the shopping experience beyond commerce as usual.