A Brief Look Back at the History of Ecommerce

Ecommerce has become as much a part of most people’s lives as retail shopping was 20 years ago. Chances are you’ve made an online purchase – whether it was a new song, an audiobook, or even something more substantial – within the last few weeks.
It’s probably a safe bet that your company has a lot riding on their present ecommerce efforts, too. But have you ever looked back at where ecommerce began? It might help you better predict where it’s going and how your company can prepare.
Here’s a quick look at ecommerce history.

The 4 Eras of Ecommerce (So Far)

If you think ecommerce is a relatively new phenomenon, you might be surprised to learn that it actually goes back several decades.
Here are the four eras of ecommerce, thus far.

The ‘60s to ‘80s

The roots of ecommerce stretch all the way back to the 60s. We can trace its origins to the Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), which was used to transfer data from one computer to another.
For example, trading partners used EDI technology to exchange invoices, orders, and other business transactions.
Eventually, EDI led to teleshopping, which bears a much greater resemblance to today’s ecommerce. Users could place orders with grocery stores and other local businesses through a device that hooked up to their televisions.

The ‘80s to ‘90s

Of course, this technology was still a far cry from today’s offerings.
France was the first to really introduce something that functioned like the modern World Wide Web. Minitel was invented in 1982 and only went out of use in 2012. The device was a beige computer with an attached keyboard. At first, it gave users access to the phonebook and little else, but eventually, it could be used to look up:

  • Bank accounts
  • Exam results
  • Stock prices
  • Travel reservations
  • University applications
  • Weather reports

Though it pioneered much of the ecommerce revolution, it couldn’t compete with what the Internet would offer users.

The ‘90s to 2000s

In 1990, Tim Berners Lee and his friend, Robert Cailliau, famously published a proposal for what they called “WorldWideWeb.”
By the following year, the Internet was flourishing. The National Science Foundation rescinded restrictions that kept it from commercial users and online shopping as we know it today began.
Even in these early days, it became clear that ecommerce would be an unprecedented force that would affect how the entire world purchased products.
The book Future Shop: How New Technologies Will Change the Way We Shop and What We Buy predicted how the combination of new information technologies and public policies would help consumers make sense out of a marketplace that had been growing more and more complex in recent decades.
You only need to think about sites like Amazon and YouTube channels that feature expert reviews to see how prescient this prediction was.
In 1995, the NSF started registering domain names for a fee. The number of domains quickly grew from 120,000 to more than 2 million in just 3 years.
That much growth in that short a time period proved overwhelming for the NSF, which abdicated its role as a regulator of the Internet, largely handing the job over to the commercial sector.
One example of the kind of innovation that helped move ecommerce forward was Netscape’s invention of Secure Socket Layers (SSL), a security protocol that promised its users the comfort of encryption while shopping.
Obviously, encryption remains a vital part of how online shopping is done today. It’s hard to imagine ecommerce without this decades-old technology.
Of course, three companies would revolutionize ecommerce between the mid-90s and the early 2000s:

  • Amazon: Though many predicted it was an idea guaranteed to self-destruct, Amazon introduced the now-popular concept of sharing user reviews – including those that are extremely unflattering and may even hurt a product’s sales.
  • eBay: While Amazon would eventually allow something similar, eBay popularized the idea of letting one stranger sell their property to another. Again, the concept was originally derided. Though the first ever sale on eBay didn’t look promising (it was a broken laser pen) and the company has declined since, there’s no doubt that it revolutionized ecommerce.
  • Napster: Speaking of companies that enjoyed a meteoric rise, Napster was the predecessor to iTunes and, arguably, YouTube. Like eBay, it provided a platform that complete strangers could use to carry out transactions, albeit illegally. Though Napster’s success was controversial, to say the least, it proved that a website where people shared with no real direct benefit could be extremely popular.

Then came social media.

2010 to Present

The big story for the last 10 years has been social media.
While SixDegrees is probably the first example of such a site (which was founded in 1997) and AOL messenger (founded the same year) certainly influenced later versions, it was sites like MySpace and, later, Facebook, that really got the ball rolling with social media.
Today, it’s hard to separate ecommerce from these platforms. Almost every company uses social media to draw attention, bring people to their websites, gain email subscribers and, ultimately, sell.
Another major advancement during the past 10 years has been sites like Shopify and WordPress that make it easy for people with no technical background to set up ecommerce websites.
Between these sites and social media platforms, ecommerce has become fertile ground for new companies. Entrepreneurs who take the time to learn the ropes can quickly become major players.

What Does the Future Hold for Ecommerce?

The future of ecommerce will belong to people who can add a human touch to their strategies.
Everyone has the same access to the same tools, so the advantage will go to those who can create a real connection with their audiences. The rise of YouTube celebrities is already showing what’s to come.
That’s not to say your company needs a YouTube channel, but there’s every reason to believe that the overall trend for ecommerce continues moving toward a more personal approach. Use your platforms to create real connections and customers will respond by giving you real profits.