It comes as no surprise: eCommerce has gone from being the newcomer on the block to the bully—challenging the traditional, brick-and-mortar model as we know it. Especially, now as online purchases surge during the pandemic. We digress. We’re not here to predict the future, but rather look at what we can learn from the past.
For our purposes, we’re going to define eCommerce as the purchase of an item or service and the payment for that purchase happening entirely in the digital space. Depending on when you decide to say eCommerce started, as an industry, it’s between 25 and 50 years old, which means the evolution of eCommerce is still in its infancy, as industries go.

When Did eCommerce Begin?

The beginning of our tale is a murky one. There’s an urban legend that the first bout of online shopping that ever occurred was in 1971 or 1972, between students at Stanford and MIT. One group had weed, the other wanted it, so they used the nascent ARPANET (the modern internet’s grandaddy) to make a deal. But for most, the modern internet didn’t start till after Sir Tim Berners-Lee unleashed the World Wide Web upon the world in 1991. There’s disagreement about whether the true “first sale” online was the purchase of a Pizza Hut pizza, a Sting CD, or a sale of computer equipment on the Internet Shopping Network, but all of these transactions took place in 1994. So if you’re looking for a kick-off year, that’s it.
And like you’d expect in any burgeoning industry, the evolution of eCommerce has been fraught with what we would call vestigial offshoots, with the dotcom bubble being the prime example. So many eCommerce websites like, books-a-million,, and many more rose to titanic prominence, only to fall. The crater their failure created stalled the US economy from around 1998 until 2002. Whether through negligence, overzealous optimism, or just bad luck, thousands of companies have been opened and shuttered in the age of eCommerce.

Curious about why some companies failed and some didn’t? In our view, it’s inflexibility. If you feel like your business is too rigid, especially given the actively changing nature of the world right now, check out our “should you rebrand yourself” business guide.

A quick eCommerce timeline. . .

– 1995, eBay and Amazon make their first sales.
– 1996, online sales surpass 1 billion dollars for the first time ever.
– 1998, PayPal is founded and changes how things are purchased online.
– 1999, Alibaba, (China’s version of Craigslist/ eBay/ Facebook Marketplace) is founded.
– 2000, Google launches AdWords (now called Google Ads).
– 2005, Etsy is launched.
– 2008 the iPhone is introduced, shattering desktop-only eCommerce and introducing a mobile shopping experience.
– 2009, Uber is founded, revolutionizing eCommerce in the service industry
– 2012, online business to consumer sales crossed one trillion dollars for the first time.
– 2019, eCommerce sales near $602 billion dollars online in the US alone.

Current and Upcoming Trends in eCommerce

So the big question is, what’s next? What trends are going to be vestigial, falling off in a few years or clinging to life off of name recognition and old people who can’t update their cell phones, and which are going to be the next Amazon? And more importantly, how do you make sure you’re flexible enough to endure the shifting sands of eCommerce?

Location, Location, Location Services

Thanks to Mr. Jobs and his iPhone, and the deluge of smartphones that came after, the average shopper has internet access anywhere they go, anytime they want. This empowers you as a business owner to quite literally meet them where they’re at with location-focused advertising. It’s too big of a topic to delve into here, so check out our article to learn the whole story.

Everybody, Get In Here

With do-it-yourself website builders (most with their own eCommerce solutions) everybody with an idea and a few minutes is going to be able to create an online listing for whatever thing they damn well please, from their sewing template for a Baby Yoda plushie to a cardboard cutout of Shaq dressed as a genie. This flood of potential competition means that more established businesses are going to need to rely on customer retention and social media advertising, plus excellent SEO and website design to keep up with the flood of new products.

Influencers, Influencers Everywhere

Hiring an influencer to showcase your product might have been laughable a few years ago, but now it’s catapulting brands to lead the pack in their industry, particularly when advertising to young people who tend to populate certain social media platforms like Snapchat, TikTok or Twitter.

Contactless Everything

As COVID-19 has shut down the whole world and a vaccine seems to be ages away, expect even more shopping to be done online, and for more places to start offering delivery. If your business is struggling with COVID-19, we’ve put some resources together to help.


Contributing Author Post: Lucas X. Wiseman is two parts writer, one part dungeon master, with a sprinkle of PNW rainwater, art & woodworking for flavor.

Find him here or on Twitter.

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