The Internet Has Grown In The Last Decade, So Why Hasn’t E-commerce Grown With It?

The last decade has brought new frontiers in measurement and attribution. But for The Drum’s e-commerce deep-dive, Journey Further’s James Addlestone argues that this has gotten us addicted to short-term tinkering at the expense of what really matters.

Sure, we can get deliveries faster. We can access more products, more sizes and more brands. But has our online shopping experience become more enjoyable or efficient? I’m not sure.

E-commerce has grown 5.4x over the past 10 years, from $1 trillion to $5.4 trillion. Hardly the sharpest insight, but bear with me. In 2012, just over 2 billion internet users spent 83 minutes online every day. Now it’s over 5 billion spending 192 minutes a day. That’s 166 billion internet hours to 960 billion internet hours. In 10 years.

The market has grown 6x in 10 years, but e-commerce spending hasn’t grown in line with internet usage.

There are of course many reasons for this: people with low income surf the Internet and cannot keep up with the spending of the early adopters. Common “Internet” use cases have increased, with much more time spent on social media per user (about 50% more).

Basically, we just haven’t really improved e-commerce in the last decade.

Exploring the Amazon

Check out a like-for-like comparison of Amazon’s website in 2012 and 2022.

A comparison of Amazon shopping screens between 2012 and 2022

What differences do you notice after around 3650 days of “optimization”? The site in 2022 is a little cleaner and smoother. The product has more pop and the navigation bar is…easier to navigate. But as we live in a world where the only constant, we are told, is that the world is changing faster than ever, and where (according to Gartner’s Hype Curve) we have been grappling with industry-changing technologies in recent years decade, the improvement is underwhelming at best.

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Surely given the millions Amazon spends on its data science capabilities, the recommendation engine and UX are much better and more sophisticated?

A comparison of Amazon shopping screens between 2012 and 2022

The resemblance is striking. When internet speeds are 5x faster than 2012; when photography is more high definition and accessible than ever; if we can record videos in 10k; when websites can be created at the push of a button; If there’s more competition, more investment, more data, better algorithms, and more experience available…we’ve spent a decade tinkering within the confines of what we consider best practice.

Why didn’t we do better?

Ecommerce has (allegedly) made it easier than ever to measure short term effects of the activity. This had far-reaching consequences.

It has resulted in digital channels being inherently short term. We’ve become addicted to A/B testing. There is a parallel universe where this leads to bolder decisions, riskier creativity, and expansive “blue sky” thinking – knowing that we’ve learned something and can fall back on the status quo if the test fails. But this world has not materialized. The best experimenters understand the opportunities that long-term A/B testing offers. You understand that a series of short-term tests will only ever help us to reach local optimums. Unfortunately, there is no abundance of the best experimenters.

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This has drained investment from other “long-term” businesses. Why risk money on an unproven step when we can actually prove what works with our experimental program?

We’d rather know for certain that we’ve made a small improvement than bet on real transformation.

Our world is geared towards short-termism, be it the relatively short holding periods of private equity (around five years) or the average tenure of CEOs (4.8 years for the FTSE 100).

Why I’m (surprisingly) optimistic about the future

We begin by taking a more scientific, field-based approach to assessing the impact of short-term versus long-term. Take Binet and Field’s The Long and the Short of It: back in 2013, they empirically showed that, in general, investing about 60% in longer-term brand marketing produces optimal results.

This empirical evidence is finally catching on. The more field research is done, the more compellingly we can present business owners with major transformation risks.

Meanwhile, challengers are beginning to disrupt the market, potentially forcing a shift in the e-commerce giants’ mindset from “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to a real one to need switch. For example, we’re seeing more and more people using video-rich platforms like TikTok as search engines. We’ll see more video-rich, interactive content to help us navigate e-commerce sites as competitors envision other ways customers might fundamentally interact with content.

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James Genchi, head of UX design at Journey Further, tells me that we’re starting to see retailers rethinking how we use existing data to revolutionize shopping. Not necessarily more data or “AI,” just better customer-centric use cases. Take Thread or Stitch fix: online marketplaces that really save users time and energy with curated lists based on individual preferences.

I anticipate a shift away from efficiency and toward experience; E-commerce that offers less choice but more clarity. We will see more gripping product images; the ability to query products with higher accuracy; and (eventually) the ability to delve into some sort of metaverse to “try on” different garments from different retailers.

The future looks bright. I sincerely hope that 10 years from now I’ll be looking back at 2022 and laughing at our terribly boring and functional ecommerce websites.

For more updates on the future of online sales, head over to our ecommerce deep dive hub.

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