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(iG) A guide to commerce on the Internet

Last Edit: 20/01/21

Online shopping is the activity of purchasing goods and services on the Internet, with transactions typically using credit and debit card payment systems. The Internet predates the World Wide Web (a service found on the Internet from 1991) and so does online shopping. However, Internet shopping predating the World Wide Web was incredible minor in volume in comparison to today's online commerce. Online shopping is sometimes referred to as e-commerce, which means: electronic commerce. Michael Aldrich, an English entrepreneur, is generally credited as being the inventor of online shopping: In 1980, he created the 'Teleputer', a technology that used Internet protocols to provide a Business-to-Business (B2B) shopping system. The first business to use Aldrich's B2B system was Thomson Holidays, who used his technology in 1981. Tesco was the first UK retailer to use Aldrich's Business-to-Consumer (B2C) shopping system in 1984, and Gateshead pensioner Jane Snowball is credited as being the first ever online shopper. By 1986, CompuServe, one of the first Internet Service Providers, created an electronic mall service, which operated in 30 cities in the United States of America.

HTTPS used by shopping sites like Amazon to secure payment details.
(Pictured: HTTPS, an extension of HTTP, that encrypts data via either Transport Layer Security (TLS), or Secure Sockets Layer (SSL).

While online shopping existed prior to the World Wide Web, Internet usage was minuscule, and e-commerce a minor service used by this minuscule user base. The World Wide Web was the service that popularised the Internet, launched in 1991, it has continued to be the most popular service used on the Internet to the present day. Initially, the first problem that businesses had with setting up an online shopping website was taking payment and providing product delivery. Online shopping via the World Wide Web was largely made possible by the Netscape Communications company who created HTTPS: which is an extension of the HTTP (an application layer protocol for the Web) and encrypts data that is sent between a web client (browser) and a web server (website). Netscape implemented HTTPS in the Netscape Navigator web browser in 1994. Two of the Internet's biggest e-commerce websites were launched a year later: Amazon.com and eBay.com. Some other early e-commerce websites include: IndiaMART (1995); ECPlaza (1996); DoubleClick (1997); HomeGrocer (1997); PayPal (1998); Zappos (1999), and Alibaba (1999). The payment/order handling process of shopping websites has always been referred to as the 'shopping cart' of the website. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a wide range of shopping cart systems -- utilising a range of payment authorisers -- the most popular of which is probably PayPal and Shopify. Some other well known shopping cart systems include: Big Commerce, Worldpay, 3dcart, Ashop, Cart66, Bookly, CS-Cart, Magento, Miiduu, Paycart, Shopp, UberCart, and Zen Cart.

It has probably not escaped your notice that the early adopters of the World Wide Web -- as a 'vehicle' to conduct commerce -- were startup companies. The vast majority of established bricks and mortar retailers were slow on the uptake, and only started to release online shopping services when broadband was released in the 2000s -- when it became obvious that the Internet was not a fad and online shopping would become a serious competitor to bricks and mortar shopping. Throughout the 2000s online shopping saw an exponential year-on-year growth, and it helped to propel two of its earliest adopters (Amazon and Ebay) into unrivaled gargantuan global companies; Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is currently rated as the World's richest individual. While it's obvious who the early dotcom winners are, there are plenty of companies who saw the potential of online shopping, but their endeavors resulted in a large loss for their investors: Boo.com, Webvan.com, Razorfish.com, Broadcast.com, Kozmo.com, and Pets.com. The impact online shopping has had upon bricks and mortar shops should not be understated: Many popular UK chainstores can directly link their demise to the launch of e-commerce: Blockbuster, Woolworths, HMV, Maplin, and Toys R Us. The impact upon 'mom and pop' family run stores, while harder to ascertain, is probably just as severe.

While nearly all online shopping is transacted on the traditional World Wide Web -- referred to as the clearweb because it's accessible to search engines and it is generally unencrypted -- a limited, but noted exception, is online shopping transacted on the deepweb and darkweb. Michael Bergman coined the term deepweb, and it refers to parts of the World Wide Web that are not accessible to search engines: A paywall for newspapers and magazines is one example of commercial content that is only available on the deepweb. The darkweb is securely hidden from the clearweb through the use of software that uses encryption, and it is done so intentionally. The primary purpose of the darkweb (also referred to as the darknet) is to maintain anonymity, and the Tor network is one example of a darkweb software platform; Tor encrypts data through three relays. Silk Road is generally credited as one of the first shopping marketplaces launched on the darkweb: launched in 2011, it principally allowed users to sell and buy illegal drugs.

In conclusion, the growth of online shopping does not appear to be stopping: Alibaba doubled its single day sales record in 2016 and Amazon plan on using drones to deliver goods. The contagious Coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) has further increased the shift towards online shopping and a more digital world: Due to the advantage online shopping has for hygiene. But it has come at a cost, with many high streets in the UK containing empty shops. While online shopping has been lauded for its conveniences and price saving (such as price comparison and cashback sites), it is not without its criticisms, such as: bricks and mortar retailers complaining about shoppers checking products instore and then buying online at a discount; overworked warehouse workers for online retailers; large international online businesses paying a low amount of national tax; and fake sellers on large auction websites.