Every 50 years or so, retailing undergoes this kind of disruption. A century and a half ago, the growth of big cities and the rise of railroad networks made possible the modern department store. Mass-produced automobiles came along 50 years later, and soon shopping malls lined with specialty retailers were dotting the newly forming suburbs and challenging the city-based department stores. The 1960s and 1970s saw the spread of discount chains—Walmart, Kmart, and the like—and, soon after, big-box “category killers” such as Circuit City and Home Depot, all of them undermining or transforming the old-style mall.
Each wave of change doesn’t eliminate what came before it, but it reshapes the landscape and redefines consumer expectations, often beyond recognition. Retailers relying on earlier formats either adapt or die out as the new ones pull volume from their stores and make the remaining volume less profitable.
Like most disruptions, digital retail technology got off to a shaky start. A bevy of internet-based retailers in the 1990s—Amazon.com, Pets.com, and pretty much everythingelse.com—embraced what they called online shopping or electronic commerce. These fledgling companies ran wild until a combination of ill-conceived strategies, speculative gambles, and a slowing economy burst the dot-com bubble. The ensuing collapse wiped out half of all e‑commerce retailers and provoked an abrupt shift from irrational exuberance to economic reality.
Today, however, that economic reality is well established. The research firm Forrester estimates that e-commerce is now approaching $200 billion in revenue in the United States alone and accounts for 9% of total retail sales, up from 5% five years ago. The corresponding figure is about 10% in the United Kingdom, 3% in Asia-Pacific, and 2% in Latin America. Globally, digital retailing is probably headed toward 15% to 20% of total sales, though the proportion will vary significantly by sector. Moreover, much digital retailing is now highly profitable. Amazon’s five-year average return on investment, for example, is 17%, whereas traditional discount and department stores average 6.5%.
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