On July 5, 1994, Jeff Bezos founded a new company called Amazon. The internet was relatively new, especially to everyday consumers, and Bezos had an idea: he could create an online bookstore that could deliver books to customers all over the country and, eventually, all around the world. Amazon wouldn’t have the overhead that brick and mortar stores would have – it would need fewer employees and less space. But it could still make huge wholesale buys and enjoy high purchase volumes, because like the big bookstore chains, it could reach customers all over the country.
You know the rest of the story, of course: Bezos’ company took off, and soon it was selling far more than just books. These days, Amazon customers can buy just about anything online – and a lot of it can be shipped to them in two days or less, a perk that’s included free for members of Amazon’s premium service, Amazon Prime.
Amazon’s growth reflects a larger trend on the internet economy. People in America and around the world are doing more and more of their shopping online. And just as Amazon started selling books and ended up selling everything, e-commerce in general has broadened its offerings significantly. Things that you would never have bought online 20 years ago are now purchased there as a matter of course.
“You shouldn’t buy that online”
When Amazon and other internet retailers first made waves in the 1990s, the internet was new – and, in some ways, scary. Tech-savvy scammers were among the early adopters, and now-legendary grifts like the famous “Nigerian Prince” emails were new, unknown, and surprisingly effective. Big brick and mortar brands didn’t all move quickly into the e-commerce space, and the new companies that did – like Amazon – didn’t have the established reputations of the big brick-and-mortar players.
Amazon’s decision to start with books was a good one. Customers knew exactly what they were getting: they could see the cover, and they knew that the books publishers sent Amazon would be identical to the ones they sent Barnes and Noble. And books aren’t really emergency purchases, so waiting for shipping was no big deal.
But when it came to buying big-ticket items, customers were wary. Expensive things like computers and televisions were purchased online less often, because a problem with shipping or a shifty retailer could leave customers out a lot of money. And when it came to big-ticket items like cars and boats, forget it: those were far too dangerous to buy online. Besides, how could you buy a car without seeing it? You couldn’t necessarily trust an online seller to tell you the truth about its history. The best thing you could do online was buy parts for a car you already owned, and unless you were buying something small like a set of seat covers or even a plug-in diesel tuning chip, the shipping costs alone would make the purchase almost irresponsible! Huge chunks of the economy, from real estate to cable television services, remained untouched by the internet.
Yes, you can buy that online
Now, everything has changed. In the years since 1994, online retailers have developed lasting reputations: we now know that Amazon is reliable, trustworthy, and offers good customer service. No longer are all internet retailers created equal – there’s a hierarchy now, just as there was in the brick-and-mortar world.
And as individual companies became respected, they elevated e-commerce as a whole. Customers became increasingly willing to buy online, and the process was quickly normalized. Brick-and-mortar giants jumped in on it. Fans of Walmart, Best Buy, and Target can now do their shopping online and can choose between delivery and in-store pickup.
Most impressively, the internet has become a commonplace to shop for life’s biggest purchases. Customers can use websites to peruse thousands of options for their next car and can make their choice easier by filtering the results by model, year, color, and much more. Customers can look for new and used boats for sale, find a price on a new RV, and rent a car for a vacation online. This has been made possible not just by the improved reputation of e-commerce, but by new tools: virtual tours of RV interiors, vehicle history reports for cars and boats, and more. Almost every Craigslist poster now has a smartphone that makes taking photos and videos easy. Some online car dealers even offer “virtual test drives.”
Even real estate now lives on the internet. You can’t get an apartment delivered to your doorstep, of course, but you can do much of the housing search online. Websites can show you photos and information about the location, number of rooms, and amenities of any house or apartment – such as those Seattle condos that Amazon’s increasingly large work force keeps buying up in that booming tech city.
In this day and age, there’s no longer a reason to fear shopping for anything online. E-commerce has changed the way we do business forever, and the result has been a more convenient experience for most consumers. Thankfully, it’s a safe experience, too.