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The practice of buying things over the Internet is common enough today that few devotees, or even casual shoppers, think twice about tapping in their credit card identification numbers, selecting “submit” and anxiously awaiting the UPS truck’s arrival. According to the research firm Jupiter Media Metrix Inc., U.S. online retail sales added up to $130 billion last year.

Stewart Schley

But the modern online shopping experience traces back far beyond the onset of the Internet age, to late 19th century America. Then, two visionaries–rivals, it turned out–made correct bets about new possibilities in delivering merchandise to rural Americans, thanks to a couple of key enabling forces.

The first to the market was A. Montgomery Ward, whose original incarnation of a mail-order catalog in 1872 is regarded as the first of its kind. The Montgomery Ward catalog was a brilliant breakthrough for a nation of shoppers accustomed to buying the goods they needed at the general store, where limited inventories and high prices consigned customers to the mercies of the only game in town. Ward’s catalog was followed in 1895 by an even more ambitious effort from another legendary retailer, Richard W. Sears, who by 1897 was advertising some 6,000 items, each ornately and painstakingly rendered via woodcut illustration. They ranged from the tiniest staples (safety pins, for example) to horse-drawn buggies (buyers had to supply their own horse) and furniture.

There was nothing easy about convincing a generation of American consumers to make wholesale changes in the way they bought things. Ward and Sears both were regularly derided as cold-hearted outsiders who stole away business from the rightful grasp of local merchants. “Shears and Sawbuck” became an oft-used derision for the Sears and Roebuck catalog and the men behind it.

Perseverance, though, would pay off. So would an attribute of catalog-shopping that continues to be one of the big allures of the Internet commerce era today: bargains. By eliminating retail middlemen, the two big mail-order merchants were able to wow rural Americans with stunning (even for their time) prices. A brand-new fishing rod could be bought for nine cents; a gun for less than a dollar. Also breaking down resistance was the practice introduced by both retailers of demanding no payment until buyers had examined their goods first-hand.

Behind the Sears-and-Ward revolution were two important enabling elements. One was a transportation network. Railroads that made stops at even the smallest of rural towns gave Ward and Sears a ready-made, efficient means of getting their shipments into the hands of customers. The other was the federal government’s decision to authorize free postal delivery for farmers–a policy that made it economical for Sears to deliver its multitudinous “Wish Book” across the land.

Today, a multi-layered transportation network of planes, trains and UPS delivery trucks continues to do the heavy lifting behind a thriving e-commerce economy. Retailers, too, continue to make use of the U.S. Postal Service as a means to shower the nation with a variety of mail-order catalogs. But there is no mistaking the propellant of digital media, and emerging combinations of technology that are fueling the e-commerce era. Liberty Media Corp.’s QVC, a TV-shopping network, generated more than $7 billion in 2006 revenue ($5 billion of it from U.S. orders) by effectively removing the physical catalog from the shop-from-home equation, and replacing it with a combination of television, Internet and telephone networks that operate with a stunning efficiency. The modern telecommunications “triple play” bundle now neatly encapsulates each of those three contributors, allowing QVC customers (largely unbeknownst to them) to conduct an entire transaction over the cable network infrastructure. New achievements in video delivery over broadband networks now are beginning to ripple across the e-commerce sea, as modernized e-commerce shopping outlets showcase products not in the still images of digital photography but in full-motion video. More brain-seizing yet are early experiments taking place in digitally automated manufacturing, an arena in which it may one day be possible to order online a physical product such as a kitchen spatula, and have the thing fabricated down in the basement from a broadband-connected manufacturing machine.

More than a century ago, A. Montgomery Ward and Richard Sears demonstrated that Americans were willing to discard longstanding shopping loyalties for the sake of choice and price. Those native allures are still very much the stuff of a thriving online retail economy. It’s the means of fulfilling them that have changed our modern-day view of what now makes shopping wishes come true.

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