Online Shopping Started in the UK in 1995 – at WHSmith

Online Shopping Started in the UK in 1995 – at WHSmith

That week the WHSmith teams were focusing on the Book, DVD and CD charts, with John Grisham’s The Chamber, Bad Boys and Wet Wet Wet all hitting the top spots. In the canteen the chatter was about Chris Evans’ Radio 1 Breakfast Show (it had started that week) and the repercussions of the Oklahoma bombing (it had shocked America 10 days earlier). Meanwhile just behind the canteen in the offices of the Customer Information Systems Team Christine Taylor was working on her latest project. The project had received the fanfare of a Grosvenor House launch party where Richard Branson was beamed to a large screen to show his support, but now the nitty-gritty of IT work had come to its fruition. Christine’s role was to manage WHSmith’s first online store and today it would take its first order.

Home shopping at the time was from paper-based catalogues. Fewer than 10 million people worldwide had access to the internet in 1995. In the UK less than 2% of households had a computer. Today over 3 billion people have internet access worldwide and 88% of UK households have at least one online device.

Five years earlier Tim Berners-Lee had invented the internet and made it open to the world. Commercial use of the network was prohibited until 1995 however concerns remained about how to keep payment information secure from hackers. Compuserve did not have those concerns – their dial-up subscription model meant that they owned the network and host computer so could police its use.

WHSmith had set up a team led by Allan Mitchell to develop systems customer would use. They had created an award-winning service to take orders from customers in stores and were developing touch-screen kiosks. Christine’s projects included the set-up of WHSmith’s store in Compuserve’s UK Shopping Centre. The other retailers to join were Virgin Our Price, PC World, Dixons, Great Universal Stores, Tesco, Interflora, Past Times and Innovations. Selfridges, Jaguar, Office World and The London Science Museum would join later.

WHSmith had been in at the start of Compuserve’s development in September 1994 and were chosen for the first formal test of the service on 9th February 1995. The Shopping Centre went live to Compuserve’s 100,000 customers on Thursday 27th April 1995 and Paul Stanfield, Compuserve UK’s Product Manager would repeat that test as the first live order. Paul chose a Book from the 250 on offer (CD-roms were also available) – we suspect it was Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. He paid £1.95 for delivery and the book arrived in the post 3 or 4 days later. Internet shopping in the UK had begun, or as Paul declared at the time – “our UK Shopping Centre has brought tomorrow’s way of shopping to today’s consumers.”

Meanwhile in a suburban house in Seattle an eTailer (the term of the day) which would become a household name would not take its first order for another four months.

Such was the change that Compuserve’s press release explained the concept of searching of a book online – something we take for granted today:

‘The search for a specific product is also made easier in the UK Shopping Centre through powerful database software. For instance if you wanted to buy Vikram Seth’s best-selling book ‘A Suitable Boy’ but could not remember the author’s name or even the title of the book, but knew the book was in some way related to India, you could use the word ‘India’ and the search would find you all those books relating to India.’

The Shopping Centre would take £1.5m sales in its first year. Christine’s boss, Judy Conybeare, said at the time: “… every month we’re learning more about different aspects of retailing on the network. The experience has shown that there’s definitely a demand there that we can satisfy. We’re hoping to expand the range to 1500 books over the next three months and extend the service beyond the UK. We’ve had enquiries from as far afield as India so we know there’s a market out there.”

In the years immediately after the first order was taken security protocols were developed that secured transactions on the open web. The Compuserve Shopping Centre moved to the open internet. Later in 1995 The Internet Bookshop (iBS) launched on a small industrial estate in Oxford to become Europe’s leading online bookseller. iBS joined WHSmith in 1998 and in 1999 WHSmith.co.uk launched with over 1 million books and stationery products.

Today, the PC used to take the order has been upgraded and replaced, but WHSmith remain in Swindon, the offices where the order was taken are now used by WHSmith’s Customer Service call centre team and a couple of the original team still work with WHSmith.co.uk.

Note – the IMRG (Interactive Media in Retail Group), the industry body for e-retail recognised WHSmith as taking the first order in their press release on 18th May 2007.