Michael Zeisser of Libery Media delivered an engaging presentation at the 2012 Shop.org conference on the history of the Internet. He outlined five primary phases of the industry in a concise and informative manner. His offer that each phase or shift has generally lasted about 3 to 5 years was presented thoughtfully and supported by data. If the theory is to be believed, we are soon approaching the next fundamental shift.
Briefly, Zeisser’s history lesson follows shifts from the days of the dial-up ISPs to the mobile device expansion of today:
- ISP as Content – AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve
- Web Portals – Yahoo, Lycos
- Search – Google
- User Generated – Social, Facebook, Twitter
- Mobile – apps, mobile web, we walk around with the Internet in our pockets
Ziesser stopped short of offering a prediction or opinion on what might be the next phase of the industry, but postulated that it is imminently upon us. My focus is on how the next shift in the industry will impact (or in many cases be directly impact by) the world of digital commerce. I am similarly avoiding predictions, but have contemplated those technologies that are certain to be at the center of it all.
So what will the next fundamental shift in ecommerce be?
Beyond the hype and buzzword, when we finally get around to analyzing and making use of the petabytes of data that we as online merchants collect on our shoppers the experience of finding products will forever be changed. This concept goes way beyond “you may also like” recommendations. The data exists and the statistical techniques are already invented that can quite accurately predict exactly what I’m looking for based on a number of things that a website knows about me: my location, the keywords I typed at a search engine, my past shopping history, the time of the day. Now we have to fully deploy this knowledge in the form of a consumer experience that “just knows.” It’s a weeknight at 9pm in the summer, I’m likely watching the Yankee game on TV, surfing Amazon on my iPad, and just saw a commercial for a product. The site should just know. Play the odds and guess what i’m doing based on everything it knows about me. It will take a few years to hone the algorithms, but I fully expect we’ll get there. Scary.
Checking sports scores on Siri is just the beginning. Combine Big Data with a semantically aware assistant who really understands what you want and the concept of browsing a website and clicking or smudging around will forever change. As craftsmen of the visual user experience for online retail, the notion that our beautiful and highly-converting designs may one day join the annals of Internet phases past is terrifying. But I believe it’s true. And designing ecommerce experiences around voice will the next frontier.
Alex: Siri, my wife said we need diapers.
Siri: You probably mean the Size 3 Swaddlers for Nina. Lesters.com can have them to you tomorrow for $20. Shall I order them?
Alex: Yes, and have them send a gift for my wife.
Siri: They recommend this bracelet to go along with the earrings you bought her last year for your anniversary. Shall I add them to the order?
Alex: Yes, thanks.
Siri: Forever in your service, Alex.
The retail industry continues to evolve to one of on-demand fulfillment. The majority of American populace will soon live close enough to a major distribution center (DC) capable of trucking an item to your front door the same day you order it. Amazon’s finally getting around to deploying the shiny robots they bought when they acquired Kiva, and it’s estimated that robot automation will increase the items a single warehouse picker can gather from 160 an hour to 600 an hour. If free 2-day shipping is the norm for 2012, will consumers expect free 2-hour shipping by 2014? (I know many CFOs that sure hope not.)
For less than $3,000 you can now buy a high quality 3D printer capable of creating intricate products out of plastic. More materials, larger sizes, and decreasing prices are coming soon. Forget same-day delivery–you want that new case for your iWhatever? Order it (by voice) from Apple.com and it will spit out of your 3D printer. Marketplaces of interested designers have already started to grow and it’s just a matter of time before major consumer brands get into this space.
These are but 4 areas–Data, Voice, Delivery, and Printing–that are sure to play a major role in the future of ecommerce. Admittedly, it’s awfully shortsighted to not consider the impact of global ecommerce growth on the next fundamental Internet shift. China should overtake the US online retail market by 2013 or 2014. And what’s to keep the Chinese manufacturers of most of the products we buy from building their own DCs all over the US and Europe and selling direct to consumers? (Answer: nothing, they’re going to do it and cut out the American/European middleman some day.)
Wherever it happens, I endorse Zeisser’s model and there’s no question that we’re sitting on the precipice of the next fundamental shift in our industry.