Shopping has been a fundamental human activity since the early days of civilization. However, from ancient times until not all that long ago - say the last 100 years or so - the most significant changes to take place in the retail world had to do with the products available to us. We went from being able to access only those things made or grown in our immediate area to being able to buy things made in all corners of the globe.
However, despite the massive growth in the number of products available to us, the act of shopping in 1900 was fundamentally the same as it was in 1600, 800, and 500 BC. People went to a nearby market to see what was in stock, they did their research at the market, and then they decided if they wanted to buy the product or not. Once they'd made their decision, an exchange was made between the buyer and seller.
Today, we still do the same thing, but thanks to the internet, a large portion of the buying process can take place in the comfort of our own homes. It can even occur while we're on-the-go thanks to mobile browsing and smartphones. This has led to a shopping revolution, and we're just at the beginning of it. Below we've outlined all the different ways the internet has changed the way we shop.
Online Shopping in 2019
Before getting into the specifics of how the internet has changed the way we shop, consider the following statistics about online shopping as of 2019:
Constant Ad Exposure
For most of us, the buying process begins when we make up our minds that we would like to make a purchase. We jump over the mental hurdle that comes with spending our money (something that is much easier for some than others) and we start to pursue the object more actively.
However, what we don't realize is that the buying process - at least the one that goes on in our brains - has started long before we've even made the conscious decision to go out and buy something. You may ask: how is this possible? One word: advertising.
Advertising as a concept is nothing new. It's been around in some form or another probably forever, but it really took off in the 1950s and 1960s when televisions became mainstream. However, nowadays, thanks to the internet, we are literally surrounded by advertising.
Whether you're playing a game, watching a video on YouTube, listening to Spotify or Pandora, scrolling through social media, or just browsing your preferred news site, you are being exposed to ads, and because most ad services, such as Facebook and Google, use your personal data to understand your preferences and interests, these ads are naturally more effective than those you see on TV or hear on the radio.
Forming a Bias
Some people think personalized ads are good because they save us time by getting us right to the products most relevant to us. It also gives smaller companies the chance to reach previously out-of-reach audiences.
Others think that gives us less freedom because we're biased towards one company or another without even really knowing it; one can still pay more for increased exposure, and the bigger companies most certainly will do just that.
For example, say you decided you wanted to buy a nice digital camera. To start your search, you would probably look to Nikon, Canon, and GoPro before any others largely because these are the ones with which you're most familiar (thanks to advertising).
You would look at the products they offered, and then as you expand your search, you would compare what you found to those offered by these big-name companies. Without advertising, you may have gone through this process in reverse.
Again, whether or not this is better or worse than what we had before remains to be seen. But it's quite clear that online advertising is having an impact on the way we shop.
Another major change in the way we shop brought out by the internet has to do with research. In the old days, to learn about a product, you needed to go to different stores and ask a sales professional to help you.
This obviously wasn't ideal because a salesperson is always going to present the product they are selling in the best light, even if it's not the best option. Also, to really get an understanding of the market and what is available to you, it was necessary to travel to multiple stores, which was not only a pain but also incredibly time-consuming.
The concept of third-party reviews started taking off with publications such as Consumer Reports. But in the early days of this magazine, one needed a subscription to get access to the company's yearly reviews and recommendations. Spending money just to be able to spend more wasn't an option for everyone.
However, thanks to the internet, third-party reviews are all over the place. Some people even dedicate their entire lives to providing honest, unbiased reviews about popular products.
Because of this, we now have the opportunity to be much more informed consumers. This comes in handy whether you shop online or not.
For example, many people like to read reviews before they go to a store so that they can know what to look for and also to ask the right questions. Others do it in reverse: they go to the store to see what's out there and then they read reviews about the ones they liked to see if it's a smart purchase or not.
Here are some stats to show you how much research now goes into our shopping thanks to the internet:
Less Time in Stores
One of the more obvious changes to the retail world since the invention of the internet is that people are spending less time in stores. As mentioned earlier, stores are no longer the go-to place for people to research products. In addition, many people choose to avoid fighting crowds and traffic to compare products in favor of scrolling through some items on a screen.
Many still like to go to the store to try things on or to see how a device works for themselves, but with so many companies now offering attractive returns policies, the most prominent example being Amazon, it's becoming increasingly popular for people to order things online, try them at home, and then send them back if they don't like it.
There are even some companies, mainly clothing stores, that send you things for free. You choose what you want and send back what you don't. Shipping is free and you pay only for the clothes you've decided to keep.
Of course, the casualty of this trend is the brick-and-mortar store. Malls and other shopping centers have been closing rapidly across the country, and some companies which were once at the top have fallen dramatically. The most famous example from recent years was Toys-R-Us, which announced it would be closing the last of its stores in 2018.
Probably the biggest change in the way we shop has been the growth in mobile shopping. Even just 10 or 15 years ago, smartphone technology simply wasn't good enough for this to even be possible. But nowadays, not only is it possible, but people seem to love doing it.
As a result, any eCommerce store looking to have success must make sure to have a mobile-friendly website. In fact, this has become so important that Google will actually punish sites without a mobile-friendly version, and since search traffic is such an important part of generating new leads and sales, this punishment can produce a true catastrophe. Many major retailers have responded to this by setting up their own eCommerce store, or, in some cases, a mobile app, that gives people the chance to shop on-the-go.
Mobile shopping makes it easy for us to shop for things on-the-go. So many of us live busy, fast-paced lives, and it's easy to forget to order something you need when you get home. Mobile shopping allows you to place your order whenever you remember to do so.
It's also a form of entertainment for some people in a similar way that going to the mall used to be. Scrolling through your favorite company's catalog, or reading reviews about a product you're considering buying can be a great way to kill some time while you're riding the train or waiting for your friend to show up at the coffee shop where you've agreed to meet.
Social media has also helped mobile shopping become more popular. Both Facebook and Instagram allow companies to buy ads that are displayed in people's news feeds. All you need to do is click on the ad to be taken to the company's site.
In some cases, you can make a purchase directly. And because most people use social media on their mobile phones, this has made mobile shopping an even bigger part of our lives as retail consumers.
Here are some more stats about mobile shopping:
No discussion of how the internet has changed how we shop would be complete without mentioning Amazon. Now one of the largest companies in the world, Amazon first started as a platform for buying and selling books.
However, the days of this limited scope are long gone. Now, it's probably harder to think of something not sold on Amazon than something that is. It has everything.
This has had a few impacts on the way we shop. First, Amazon has become the reference point in the market. The majority of consumers (nine out of ten, to be exact) will price check a product on Amazon before they buy it, which puts pressure on other retailers to match Amazon's prices.
In theory, this is good for everyone since it drives prices down, but not everyone can compete with Amazon on price simply because of how much bigger it is than everyone else.
Amazon also has absurdly fast delivery practices - with Prime, items are delivered in as little as a day or two, and sometimes even on the same day - and this is also almost impossible for anyone to do except Amazon. Yet consumers expect this service from everyone, which perhaps gives Amazon an unfair advantage.
The second way Amazon affects the way we shop is that it's often the first place we look for new products. It's our reference point, which often makes our lives easier since it puts nearly all out options in one place, but it also makes it harder for smaller companies to stand out and for us to find these products. All of this has led to Amazon handling 44 percent of all eCommerce sales in the U.S.
However, Amazon can also be empowering. It offers fulfillment services that make it much easier for small companies to handle the logistical side of their business, and it also allows small companies the chance to reach new customers.
But in the end, no matter which way you look at it, Amazon has had a tremendous impact on the way we shop, and as the company continues to gets bigger and more consolidated, we can expect this to be the case for the foreseeable future.
Further Separation between Producer and Consumer?
Before globalization, when we went shopping, we often dealt with the people who were directly responsible for making the product we were looking at. And when this wasn't the case, we had a pretty good idea where that product was coming from. Industries were relatively concentrated based on their geographical location, and it was easier to know where things originated.
However, as companies around the world started developing global supply chains, it became harder and harder to know where and how products were made, and the internet has made it even harder. This is because when we shop online, products could be coming from anywhere.
In a way, this is a good thing, as it means more completion and lower prices, but it also drives a much larger wedge between producer and consumer, which makes it difficult for underprivileged workers to demand better conditions.
But it's also possible the internet is helping to bring us closer to the people who make our stuff. For example, thanks to the internet, it's now a lot easier to set up direct-selling, which is an arrangement where producers sell directly to consumers. This cuts out intermediaries, keeps prices down, and encourages a better relationship between the consumer and the producer.
A good example of this is with coffee. There are now countless subscription services that allow you to buy fresh coffee practically right from the consumer, and this is something that would not have been possible, or anywhere near as easy, before the days of the internet.
Shopping is really just a nicer way of saying "spending money," and the internet has had a big impact on the way we do this. First, the internet had allowed for near-instant credit and debit card processing, which helps reduce the merchants risk and also brings down fees while also making it easier for consumers to make payments.
However, the internet has also given rise to many other forms of payment. Services such as PayPal, for example, have made paying for things online much easier and much more secure. Also, digital wallets such as Apple Pay and Google Pay allow for instant, secure payments across a variety of different platforms. In some retail locations, you can use these services to pay for things simply by showing your phone, something that would have been unheard of before the internet.
The internet has also made it easier for us to pay one another. PayPal has been doing this for a while, but Venmo has become all the rage in recent years. This isn't necessarily a shopping app, but it makes it much easier for friends to pay each other when they share an expense, which helps facilitate shopping.
Clearly, the retail industry has realized that making it easier for us to pay for things is good for business. As a result, we can expect even more digital payment solutions that will make spending money even more effortless.
The internet has changed nearly every aspect of our lives. We communicate differently, work differently, learn differently, entertain ourselves differently, and, of course, shop differently.
Most of us know this already, but hopefully, you can now see that the internet's role in changing how we shop goes deeper than just giving us the chance to shop 24/7. Instead, it has infiltrated nearly every step of the buying process, from forming an opinion and choosing where to start researching all the way through to making payment.
It's impossible to predict what will happen in the future, but considering how much the internet has already changed the way we shop, we can expect it to continue to do so as we progress through the digital revolution.