The Evolution of the Online Purchase Journey – Part 1

Stuart Elmes

 The internet has gone through many changes during it's brief and storied history.

The Evolution of the Online Purchase Journey – Part One: The Pre-Y2K Years

The year is 1979…

The UK elects “The Iron Lady” as it’s first female prime minister; Michael Jackson releases “Off The Wall” and Sony unveils the “Walkman” to an intrigued global public. As the world looks toward the 80’s, the digital revolution is just a twinkle in our collective eye.

Meanwhile, on the Crawley Industrial Estate in Sussex, one man had an idea…

His name: Michael Aldrich, his idea: “Teleshopping”. Hooking his hilariously gigantic 1979 computer up to a recently purchased 26 inch Sony TV, Aldrich jerry rigged his contraption to the phone line and developed the rudimentary foundations for online shopping and e-commerce today.

However, due to lack of infrastructure and public knowledge of computer technology, Aldrich’s teleshopping concept never moved beyond the most basic of business to business (B2B) functions and slowly faded into obscurity.

But then, in 1984…

Geroge Michael and Wham pushed the limits of men’s short-shorts to heights never before imagined; The Gremlins taught us all about the dangers of feeding a mogwai after midnight and UK supermarket megabrand Tesco introduced the world to the first business to consumer (B2C) online shopping system, and with it, the world’s first online shopping basket.

And the world’s first online B2C customer? British pensioner Jane Snowball.

Presumably, Tesco chose to demonstrate it’s new platform with a 72 year old woman to prove that it’s clumsy user interface and purchase journey could be understood and navigated by anyone, regardless of technical aptitude. Sadly, however, Tesco’s online product never really found it’s footing. The world just wasn’t ready, regardless how intriguing the possibilities were.

And so it went for the rest of that turbulent decade known as the 80’s.

Little did we suspect, however, that the game was about to be flipped on its head. The digital age was about to begin.


Home Alone reminded the world how hilarious and adorable it can be when criminals invade the home of a small child who has been abandoned by his family; Vanilla Ice set the cause of white rappers back a full decade and the US took it’s first tentative steps into a middle eastern quagmire which would prove to dominate the country’s military activities for the next 3 decades.

And in that very same year, the world wide web was born in earnest, as Tim Berners-Lee published the world’s first webpage.

The world was beginning to awaken to the possibilities of what computer and internet technologies could represent. The personal computer became the new must-have item in every affluent home and with the internet’s public acceptance and rapid growth, the medium’s commercial possibilities started to become apparent.

By 1991, The NSF (National Science Foundation) had been beaten into submission by commercial interests and began allowing commercial use of the net. Companies, brands, and spammers forced their way into the digital lives of internet users, and the world wide web would never be the same. Despite this, the ease of access to any and all data transmitted on the web meant that commercial transactions proved to be a highly risky proposition. Corporate brain trusts set to work looking for a solution.

and so it continued, until 1994…

Pulp Fiction blew everybody’s minds; Sheryl Crow and Boyz II Men clogged up the western world’s radio stations; OJ Simpson was arrested for murder and Netscape’s encryption certificate finally allowed sensitive information to be sent securely over the (now booming) world wide web. Netscape’s development enabled the transmission of sensitive financial data (bank account details, credit card numbers, etc), paving the way for fast, secure commercial and retail transactions to be conducted entirely digitally.

The door was now open for the unfettered commercialisation of the internet to begin.

It was during this period (between ’94 and ’98) that many of the internet’s most recognisable commercial brands began to stake their claim. Yahoo, Amazon and AuctionWeb (Now Ebay) – just to name a few, all appeared during these formative years of e-commerce. Few could have envisioned at the time what a gigantic role they would come to play in the rapidly expanding internet’s commercial development.

However, the public at large (many of them unfamiliar with computer technology) were inundated with frightening tales of hackers wreaking financial havoc in the lives of those who’s information they were able to steal. And wary of falling victim to a similar scam; were not yet ready to embrace online shopping with open arms.

Without access to the credit card numbers and bank details of those with money to spend, Amazon and their ilk were fighting a war against time. The first digital generation – those people raised with computers and the internet – were still a few years away from reaching financial independence. Someone would need to bridge the gap.

When Google entered the e-commerce market and Yahoo! launched “Yahoo! Stores” online, it was only a matter of time before someone grabbed the brass ring.

And someone would do just that, in 1999…

Future internet startup cautionary tales Napster and Myspace were founded; The Matrix ushered in a sci-fi movie renaissance and Eminem stepped up as the new ambassador for white rappers worldwide.

Meanwhile, a 3rd party money transfer service called “Paypal”, originally founded in 1998 as “Confinity”, was developing a platform that would empower a public wary of digital financial activities to begin shopping online with confidence, thus redefining the online purchase journey forever.

Paypal, in addition to building consumer confidence, ushered in a new era for commercial websites, especially smaller sites from less recognised brands. Suddenly, anyone’s website could be monetised. Every band could sell their own merchandise and music; every clothing company could sell their own clothes and every makeup manufacturer could cut out the middle-man and sell directly to their customers. All they had to do was find a way to drive people to their own websites and secure, easy, retail sales could begin.

As the internet finally came of commercial age, everyone wanted in. Commercial websites for companies proliferated at rates never seen before. Entire industries were born, loopholes were found and web designers became the most employable folk on earth.

The sad thing was, the “Y2K bug” was going to tear it all down at 12:00 am on January 1st, and there was nothing we could do about it.

But it wasn’t to be.

As the clock struck 12 on that fateful night, nothing happened.

Whether due to the diligence of the world’s computing elite or a problem that never actually existed, our fears about the Y2K bug failed to materialise.

As the internet’s commercial interests breathed a sigh of relief, they began drawing up their plans for the millennium to come…

***Next up: The Online Purchase Journey – Part 2, The New Millennium***