Andrew Brown for John Price 25 November 1998
My son is about to go backpacking round Southern Africa and so he has to have a knife: not just any old Swiss Army knife, but a Leatherman Wave: a chromed lump of American technology with five blades, four screwdrivers, and a huge pair of pliers. It will open bottles, clean under your nails, fix broken trucks, make you irresistible to women ó and in the backpacking shop of Saffron Walden, the small town where I live, it costs £90. So I decided to look for it on the web. Five minutesí pushing a mouse around brought me to Backcountry Equipment, in San Antonio, Texas, where the price was $78.00 or £47.. Add a fiver for the postage and I have saved nearly thirty pounds on one Christmas present.
It is figures like this which are going to make Internet shopping gigantic. In the last five years it has grown from tiny beginnings to something useful every day; and is beginning to get into the sort of exponential growth rates that boggle the mind. Estimates for the value of electronic commerce in the next two years range from $4bn to $200bn. Of course, most of this business will be in America, but the essential thing about the Internet is that it is annihilating national boundaries; and the end point is clear. The Internet will not just transform shopping: the music and travel industries may well disappear altogether in their present form.
The last time I flew to Rome, I didnít even have a ticket: just a print-out from my web browser of a page where Go! Airlines agreed to sell me a return flight the next day for £120. Selling tickets directly over the net is wonderful business for the airlines, because it means they no longer have to employ people to deal with the public and type into computer terminals. Instead, the public does its own typing; and prices can be finely tuned to match demand ó my previous trip to Rome cost only £80 return over the net when the same airline quoted twice as much over the phone.
It is already possible to download music and software over the net to burn onto your own CDs. The only technological hitch holding back this market is the slow speed of most telephone lines. When the price of fast connections comes down, the music industry will be in real trouble, because CDs will be as easy to copy as cassettes are now..
But the shopping revolution is here already. This year I have bought over the Internet a case of excellent wine, from Lay and Wheelerís in Colchester; numerous computer parts; new books from two American superstores; second-hand books fro Oxford and from Texas; CDs from the USA; a pair of tie-dyed socks from California; I have even chosen and booked hotel rooms in Rome and Nairobi.
Plenty of journalists and other office workers already use Tescos Internet shopping, where for a fee of £5.00 the shop collects and delivers the groceries you order on screen. This probably even saves money compared to the expense of driving to a supermarket, trudging round it, and probably making impulse buys as you do so. It certainly saves a huge amount of time for anyone who spends all day in front of a screen anyway.
What Tescoís and other internet shops get is priceless information on their customers. The shop on the Internet knows almost as much about its customers as the nosiest village postmistress. It knows everything they have ever bought; every page of the catalogue they have looked at and for how long. It has a pretty good idea where they are logging in from and what kind of computer they are using. This is far more information than a loyalty card, and customers canít help giving it.
Perhaps the best use of Internet commerce is Amazon.com, a shop which has no stock at all and has never made a profit, yet which has grown in four years from nothing to be worth $7.5bn largely because shopping there is fun. Amazon started by selling books, and last year moved into CDs. The office is right across the street from one of the largest book distributorís warehouses in the USA. What Amazon does is to maintain a huge catalogue which is very easy to search ó it never takes more than a minute to find any book you are looking for ó and very easy to buy from. Returning customers can order books with one click of a mouse: they will be automatically charged to your credit card and shipped to your home address. They will also find recommendations for books or CDs they might like, depending on what they bought last time. I seem to have bought all my CDs and most of my books from there this year. They took a few weeks to arrive, but saved a lot of money.
This autumn, Amazon brought out its English imitator, Bookpages, so it now has a warehouse in England, which offers quicker delivery. In America, it has just moved into selling videos, and even "holiday gifts". Just for a test, I checked whether it sold the Leatherman tool. Sure enough, I could have bought one there, just as cheaply as from Texas. Itís the moment when I realised the computer screen in front of me has become the biggest shop window in the world.
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