A look back to look ahead: A brief history of ecommerce

March 22, 2022
Kaily Hirsch

It wasn’t that long ago that the only way to buy anything was to physically go to a store. Due to necessity or convenience by now, even the die-hard Luddites amongst us have probably bought or sold something online. But do you know how ecommerce originated and developed? 

Ecommerce is the buying and selling of goods or services over the Internet. Its early origins can be traced to EDI (electronic data interchange) which is the process used by many businesses to electronically communicate information like purchase orders and invoices. Technology is evolving quickly and this evolution has a huge impact on the way that businesses operate and consumers make purchases. We don’t have a crystal ball, but we do think that by looking back at the origins of ecommerce, that we can make some assumptions and predictions about how it will continue to evolve in the years to come. 


It’s hard to imagine something that has become so prevalent in all of our lives had such humble beginnings. Would you believe us if we told you that a British grandmother started the online shopping revolution? It’s true! In May of 1984, 72-year-old Jane Snowball used her remote control to order groceries using Videotex. The brain behind the system that enabled her purchase was Michael Alrich. In 1979, he invented a chip that basically used Videotex to turn televisions into computers. Thanks to his genius, Mrs.Snowball got to be the first-ever person to enjoy the magic, pleasure, and convenience of ordering something through the Internet! 


Around the same time Jane Snowball was buying her groceries online, a website known as Boston Computer Exchange launched their online buying program in the United States. It was essentially a database for people who wanted to sell their used technology equipment. Catalogs of used devices were uploaded online and then updated daily. To purchase one of the used computers, customers would have to call the website and give their credit card information. While Boston Computer Exchange no longer exists today, its reputation and place and history remains strong as it was given the title of first-ever ecommerce store. 


1995 was the year things started to look more like what we think of as online shopping today. That was the year Jeff Bezos started Amazon.com, as an online book retailer. To order a book, shoppers browsed the online catalog and entered their credit card information - they could also call in the credit card number or fax it, but other than that not too different from what we’re used to now. Bezos thought there was only a 30% chance the company would succeed and even warned his parents, who had given their son $245,573 to start the business, that it might not work out. But after just two months, Amazon was selling to nearly 50 different countries. Since then, it’s become the largest and most successful ecommerce storefront in the world. 


In 1999 another familiar name entered the ecommerce world. Peter Thiel, Luke Nosek, and Max Levchin created a system that allowed PalmPilot users to send money to one another quickly. The invention, known as PayPal, caught the eye of the online bank X.com. After being acquired by X.com, PayPal was developed to be used as a secure payment system for the budding ecommerce industry. For years, PayPal was the primary payment system for online auction giant eBay and many others. Today, more than 286 million people use PayPal to process online transactions. 


Since the 1950’s, the Friday after Thanksgiving has been regarded by North Americans as the start of the holiday shopping season. Known for its riot-worthy sales, deep discounts, and frenzied crowds, this day was dubbed Black Friday. This was long considered to be the day for holiday shopping. But then, in the early 2000s, ecommerce reporters started to notice a trend. The Monday after Thanksgiving was one of the busiest days for online retailers. Why? It is suspected that 9-5ers, tired after a long weekend, would spend all of Monday on their computers shopping. That's right! An entire shopping holiday was forged by people slacking off at work. In 2005, this phenomenon received its official name: Cyber Monday. Now, procrastinators across the globe get to spend the Monday after Thanksgiving scrolling through deals. 


A subtle but impactful player emerged in 2006. Shopify was designed with the goal of empowering independent business owners to create professional, virtual storefronts. After setting up their own online shop, Tobias Lütke and Scott Lake were left dissatisfied with the tools available to small businesses to create online shops. They created an open-source template called Liquid that was easy to use and highly customizable. Until Shopify, the Internet had been monopolized by large platforms. Now, independent creators with any level of tech savvy can have a portal that allows them to get their products to customers via the Internet. 


Ecommerce grew exponentially through the 2010s. Online shopping became a staple in our lives. Then, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, ecommerce experienced another major boom as traditional retail stores were forced to close. By June 2020, global ecommerce traffic spiked to 22 billion monthly visits. Ecommerce became invaluable - it let people maintain a sense of normalcy and businesses stay afloat. The ability to do work, order food, and shop online was no longer a luxury but rather a necessity, proving once and for all the value of ecommerce. 

Millions of people around the globe buy, sell, and conduct business online every day. Ecommerce is a robust platform that allows businesses to reach huge audiences and has become a functional necessity for businesses of all sizes. New trends and technologies are emerging quickly, from omni-channel sales to drone deliveries. In order to operate successfully in the ecommerce realm, you need tools that will help you adapt quickly and organize your business. Selling online is great, but without proper ecommerce management tools, operations can quickly become disastrous. Tools like ParagonERP offer a wide variety of solutions and easy-to-use tools to help you thrive in the ecommerce world.

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