The Little Innovation which Transformed Online Shopping

by Paul Sloane

The Little Innovation which Transformed Online Shopping

It is clear that the internet has transformed how we shop.  More people are buying more products and services on-line than ever before.  High-street retailers and big brands are suffering at the hands of on-line merchants large and small.  There is one often overlooked innovation which has enabled this trend.  It is buyer/seller feedback.

A key component of any business transaction is trust.  Hundreds of years ago you would typically trade only with someone you could meet face to face.  Say you were a small business in Boston making shirts in 1800 and someone from Washington wrote to you wanting to order 20 shirts, how would you react?  Washington was many days ride away and you knew no-one there.  If you sent the goods would you ever get paid?  If you asked for upfront payment how will the buyer know that you will deliver?  How can you trust a complete stranger?  Much better to trade locally and swap the goods for the money with people you can see face to face.

Of course, traders took action to build trust using banks, distribution partners and retailers but there was still considerable risk that you would ship goods and not be paid or pay for goods and not receive them.

Fast forward to 1995 and there is a nascent on-line auction company called Auctionweb based in San Jose.  Its founder was a French-born Iranian computer programmer called Pierre Omidyar.   The internet allows someone with something to sell to find someone who wants it on the other side of the country but how can you trust a complete stranger?  In 1997, two years after it was launched, the company introduced the idea of buyer/seller feedback.  Both parties rated the other after a transaction. It was a simple but brilliant concept which allowed sellers in particular to build a ratings history and engender trust – a key component of business.  It was the key advance which enabled the dramatic growth of the company which in the same year of 1997 changed its name from Auctionweb to eBay.

Online feedback is now so commonplace that we take it for granted.  It is fundamental to all sorts of businesses.  Think of Airbnb.  Would you rent a room from a stranger without references?  Probably not.

We tend to think of e-commerce innovations in terms of big technology advances like Paypal or blockchain.  We tend to think of the value of service innovations in terms of faster service or reduced cost.  Buyer/seller feedback was technically simple.  Its benefit lies in improving an intangible – trust.  Buyers use feedback ratings to judge whether to use an Uber driver, whether to use a Taskrabbit worker, whether to select a hotel on Tripadvisor or a book on Amazon.

By 2018 eBay had revenues of $10B with 170 million users and 1 billion items listed.  And all because of an innovative feature which increased trust between buyer and seller.

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Paul-Sloane-780812Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation, and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, published both published by Kogan-Page. Follow him @PaulSloane

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