Last updated: February 10, 2022 The history of e-commerce: A long and winding road

The history of e-commerce: A long and winding road


When considering time itself, the history of e-commerce is fairly short, but for most of us, the idea of life without online shopping is virtually inconceivable.

From groceries to diamonds to services to enterprise level product solutions, almost anything you can imagine can be purchased electronically.

But where did it all begin, and how far will it go?

Defining e-commerce: What’s included?

The evolution of e-commerce has been rapid, growing at an almost mind-boggling pace.

Over even just the last decade, online marketplaces have blossomed, as has the sheer volume of products and services being offered to support sales.

These are things that might seem invisible to the consumer, but are an integral part of running a business, including:

  • Credit card processing
  • Website development
  • Advertising

And, yes, all of this is also e-commerce.

When we think of e-commerce, most of us focus on what it means with regard to the B2C world, but it’s much more than that. E-commerce refers to all manners of conducting business online – so any form of products or services bought or sold over an electronic medium qualifies.

The history of e-commerce: 1960s – 1980s

For beginning just a short while ago, the history of e-commerce is dramatic. In 1969, CompuServe was the first major e-commerce company to be formed in the United States. Although it seems distant now, computer time-sharing services grew from email providers to facilitating tele-shopping in the 1970s. 

While the rest of us were just beginning to celebrate the wonder of cable television at the beginning of the 1980s, some tech savvy users formed the Boston Computer Exchange, which was a bulletin board system-based marketplace established to facilitate the sale or trade of used computers. This company was a trailblazer in crafting a fully automated, on-line auction and marketplace for general commerce.

History of e-commerce infographic

history of e commerce infographic.jpg

Here we are now, entertain us: e-commerce in the ’90s

For many years, e-commerce existed quietly, but in 1990, the first web browser, aptly named “WorldWideWeb,” was launched.

Around this time, development of the internet kicked into high gear, going from the ability to display basic style sheets to the launch of Amazon and eBay within just a few short years. Needless to say, those two have become smashing successes as they evolved into massive e-commerce platforms, selling and enabling consumers to sell their own wares to others on a global scale, as well as to subscribe to items they need – no more going to the store to purchase standard household goods.

By the late 1990s, we were all getting too much email, and DVDs began to outpace VHS tapes as the preferred method of viewing films – but that didn’t last long.

In 1997, we saw the launch of Netflix as the world’s first online movie rental store.

Building their reputation on the model of flat-fee unlimited rentals without due dates, late fees, shipping and handling fees or per-title rental fees, Netflix wittingly upped the customer service game of all would-be online merchants while turning the entertainment industry on its head.

Just one year later, Paypal, in its first iteration as Confinity, entered the scene as a tool for transferring money. The company now functions as a bank that executes payment processing for online vendors, auction sites, personal, and commercial users. It’s a service that allows their customers to send, receive, and hold funds in 26 currencies worldwide. Today, Paypal Holdings, and its subsidiary, Venmo are two huge names in the digital wallet game.

I want it now: 2000s usher in era of immediate expectations

As every item you could ever want became available in the digital sphere, it was inevitable that demand for streamlining another major household expense would reach fever pitch.

In 2012, a former Amazon employee launched Instacart in San Francisco. As the business has grown, Instacart has established partnerships with over 300 national, regional, and local retailers. Instacart personal shoppers pick, pack and deliver the order within the customer’s designated time frame.

By 2014, Apple capitalized on the amount of time that we’re spending on our portable devices, and developed Apple Pay as a digital wallet and mobile payment tool. It’s currently supported on iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad, and Mac. CEO Tim Cook said that ‌Apple Pay‌ would be available in more than 40 countries and regions by the end of 2019, but the current full list of ‌Apple Pay‌ countries and regions are viewable now on Apple’s website

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As e-commerce rapidly develops, we’ve seen social sites become shoppable, with a notable milestone in 2015 when Pinterest added buyable Pins to their boards. These pins allow board followers to purchase straight from the site without having to ever leave Pinterest. Additionally, many boards without these shopping enabled pins are now offering shopping recommendations based on the content displayed. 

Since the days of eBay sidling up to PayPal, companies have partnered or acquired additional organizations to diversify or otherwise enhance their business model, and this practice shows no sign of stopping. Most notably in recent history, Amazon acquired natural foods retailer, Whole Foods, and mass retail giant Walmart picked up Flipkart for a cool $16B.

The history of e-commerce meets the future of commerce

Massive changes across the e-commerce industry has seen large retailers continue to push online sales, and even small, local operations increasingly turning to digital methods to drive business.

As the buying habits of both consumers and businesses have changed, companies have risen to the occasion, using AI and automation to meet their clients and prospects wherever they can be found on their customer journey, and anyone engaged in e-commerce will also be hustling to find these shoppers and adapting tactics to help them capture more sales. 

If history has taught us anything, it’s that e-commerce will continue to evolve at a lightning pace, capturing an ever-increasing shares across all sectors.

Creating efficient, convenient, and personalized experiences with highly sophisticated tools will be the order of the day. Regardless of the trends your organization chooses to pursue, make sure that the work is intentional and reaching toward a seamless and engaging experience for all.

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Josh Maday

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