Interviews, insight & analysis on Ecommerce

Glynn Davis: reliving the early days of ecommerce

by Glynn Davis, founder, Retail Insider

On 22 September 1998, while working on the news desk of Retail Week magazine, I received a press release announcing the launch by high street chain Dixons of a free ISP (Internet Service Provider) called Freeserve. 

The retailer had the year before become the first UK electricals retailer to launch an online shopping site with much fanfare but this unusual, and seemingly innocuous move, would be much more impactful. By removing the monthly subscription charges – imposed by the other ISPs such as AOL and CompuServe – it completely changed the landscape of internet usage and e-commerce in the UK.

The story, and incredible impact, of Freeserve is included in a forthcoming book: ‘The Rise of E-Commerce – From Dot to Dominance’ that tells the story of online retail from its embryonic beginnings in 1990 through to the current day. Its author James Roper is incredibly well placed to tell this tale because he created what was to become the membership organisation IMRG (Interactive Media in Retail Group) in 1990 and is currently its founder emeritus.

It is best known today for its IMRG e-retail sales index that was created in 2001 and continues to be the definitive measure for ecommerce sales in the UK. But it has throughout the past 30-plus years been an organisation whose retailer members have paid for its insights on the ecommerce landscape. 

From his ringside seat Roper tells the story of ecommerce in three sections – covering the decades 1990-2000, 2000-2010, and 2010-2020. The first decade is very much about a fledgling tech-led story that takes in the formation of the first web browser Netscape, the first secure online transaction on 11 August 1994 via online store NetMarket in the US involving the CD of Sting’s album Ten Summoner’s Tales, the launch of Amazon in 1995, and WH Smith hosting the first secure online transaction in the UK.

The story really starts to pick up in the section covering 2000-2010 when internet access and online shopping becomes a mainstream activity. Roper states: “Five years earlier [in 1995], many people had not even heard of the internet, but by 2000, some 30 per cent of Britons were on it, and seven million had shopped online.”

We hear about the frenzy of ecommerce activity around the Millennium including the IPO of that was timed to perfection because the week after the stock markets globally collapsed and the dotcom boom came crashing down with fatalities including,, Webvan, ClickMango and Beenz. 

But the ecommerce genie was out of the bottle and things quickly picked up with the launches of businesses like Asos and Ocado helping fuel a stratospheric growth in internet connectivity and e-commerce. By 2010 almost 75% of UK households had internet access and online sales shot up from £1 billion in 2000 to an incredible £58.8 billion – an impressive 5,772% growth, according to the IMRG index.

Helping fuel this growth was the mobile phone that started to become internet-enabled in 1998 with the introduction of 3G but it took until 4G in 2008 before the days of mobile commerce had truly arrived. Around this time the revolutionary iPhone was launched. By 2016 half of online sales were generated from mobile devices and the trend has continued since then. 

Roper brings us fully up to date in the final section, 2010 to 2020, during which time the internet and e-commerce is ubiquitous and ingrained in all our daily lives and the story is less interesting for it. We’re all largely aware of these recent activities so Roper brings things to life by predicting what might lie ahead. 

Whether you agree or not with his viewpoint is neither here nor there really because the real value of the book is in its earlier sections when he is telling a story of which many people in the retail world will be largely unaware. It might help those individuals put some context around where we are now with e-commerce and where we’re possibly heading.

For those people old enough – especially those who were involved in the rise of the internet and ecommerce – the book will take you back to an incredibly exciting period during which time there is no doubt we experienced a revolution.

The book can be pre-ordered on Amazon:


More posts from ->

General Retail

More posts from ->

Related articles