Harvard Business Review
The Idea in Brief
Like most disruptions, digital retail technology got off to a shaky start. A bevy of internet-based retailers in the 1990s—Amazon.com, Pets.com, and pretty much everythingelse.com—embraced what they called online shopping or electronic commerce. These fledgling companies ran wild until a combination of ill-conceived strategies, speculative gambles, and a slowing economy burst the dot-com bubble. The ensuing collapse wiped out half of all e commerce retailers and provoked an abrupt shift from irrational exuberance to economic reality.
Today, however, that economic reality is well established. The research firm Forrester estimates that e-commerce is now approaching $200 billion in revenue in the United States alone and accounts for 9% of total retail sales, up from 5% five years ago. The corresponding figure is about 10% in the United Kingdom, 3% in Asia-Pacific, and 2% in Latin America. Globally, digital retailing is probably headed toward 15% to 20% of total sales, though the proportion will vary significantly by sector. Moreover, much digital retailing is now highly profitable. Amazon’s five-year average return on investment, for example, is 17%, whereas traditional discount and department stores average 6.5%.
What we are seeing today is only the beginning. Soon it will be hard even to define e-commerce, let alone measure it. Is it an e-commerce sale if the customer goes to a store, finds that the product is out of stock, and uses an in-store terminal to have another location ship it to her home? What if the customer is shopping in one store, uses his smartphone to find a lower price at another, and then orders it electronically for in-store pickup? How about gifts that are ordered from a website but exchanged at a local store? Experts estimate that digital information already influences about 50% of store sales, and that number is growing rapidly.