James RJ Roper has been there for it all when it comes to ecommerce – from the early, nebulous days when few people understood the internet, let alone how to buy things from it, right through to the present day.

“We live in a world that any previous age would consider magical,” he observed. “Where smartphones serve as our enchanted lance, [and] ecommerce is a magical genie that grants our every wish.”

Roper, Founder Emeritus of the UK industry association for e-retailing and ecommerce, IMRG, was reflecting on his experiences in the wake of publishing a new book: ‘The rise of ecommerce: From dot to dominance and where it’s going next’, which examines 30 years of online shopping, from 1990 through to 2020 and the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking with Econsultancy Managing Partner Paul Davies at Ecommerce Expo 2023, Roper looked back on a long career in retail that offers some salient lessons for the present day, particularly when it comes to adapting to disruption.

“The people leading the industry are always the last to move with fast change”

In the late 2000s, ecommerce was reaching new heights, with IMRG’s Capgemini Sales Index recording its highest sustained growth rate for four years in Q2 2007: an average of 52.5% year-on-year. Consumers were increasingly turning to online channels to research their purchases, and respondents to an IMRG survey of internet users in 2008 said they considered online prices to be competitive with or better than those to be found on the high street.

Despite this, Roper recalled that nearly half of the top 100 UK retailers still lacked a transactional website at the beginning of 2007, and their non-store sales accounted for just 4.4% of total sales. “It shows how the people leading the industry are always the last to move with fast change,” Roper observed.

For industry leaders in particular, it was, ‘This [ecommerce] thing is too complicated – we’re just going to leave it to the next generation of people’

Of course, it’s easy to cast judgement on the missed opportunity with the benefit of hindsight, and the fear of repeating the mistakes of the online age (and later, the mobile age) has prompted many companies to search wildly for the next major technological shift, determined not to be left behind again. An audience member asked Roper why industry leaders might struggle to keep pace with major change.

“For industry leaders in particular, it was, ‘This thing is too complicated – we’re just going to leave it to the next generation of people’,” Roper replied. “I think the worst part of it is the short-termism: people are thinking in terms of six months, a year [ahead], maximum.”

In fact, what online shopping needed was “a serious, long-term commitment to making this thing happen,” he said.

“[And] particularly as retail now is so tough, it’s harder and harder for people in senior positions to have the luxury to take that on.”

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The next 20 years of ecommerce: “The biggest opportunities are yet to come”

Following on from the discussion of ecommerce’s past, Davies asked Roper what he sees ahead – what will the next twenty years of online shopping and retail more generally look like?

“I firmly believe that the biggest opportunities for ecommerce are yet to come,” said Roper. However, taking hold of these opportunities requires being able to identify what they are, which is not simple. “A lot of people struggle to see the future – and even if they do, they don’t know what to do about it.” Roper highlighted the global financial system’s focus on “bottom line” and “short-term thinking” as a key cause of this blinkered outlook.

However, he is optimistic about the future, particularly the possibilities presented by AI. “Artificial intelligence is really the next generation of computing … It’s a game-changer – as the internet has been,” Roper said at the beginning of his talk.

Expanding on this later, he added, “Artificial intelligence … you hear about it all the time, and it’s always the latest ‘shiny object syndrome’ that people talk about. But artificial intelligence, to me, doesn’t mean that at all… [it’s] everything that helps us see further and understand more.”

Roper also foresees “big, big opportunities” in the years ahead “for ecommerce to help people invest in themselves and their own communities.

“We need to re-centre the attention economy back into communities where people live,” he concluded.

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