Click Till You Drop

The Internet has become a shopper's paradise, stocked with everything from wine to cars. Business will never be the same

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The real promise of all this change is that it will enrich all of us, not just a bunch of kids in Silicon Valley. With online price comparisons, automatic grocery shopping and the ability to get whatever we want whenever we want it, 21st century Americans will face a radical reshaping of the consumer culture we've been building since the 1950s. Think, for a second, about the revolution that shopping malls created in the 1970s and 1980s. They defined not only how we bought stuff but also how we spent our time. The malls themselves became essential parts of a new suburban design, where castles of consumption shaped town layouts in the same way the Colosseum shaped Rome. At its heart, cybercommerce isn't just about building businesses either. It is also, explains Yang, about building a new culture of convenience and speed.

It's an attractive idea. By the year 2000, according to the GartnerGroup, online consumer sales will reach $20 billion, an increase of 233% over this year's estimated $6.1 billion. And online commerce between companies (places like Boeing that now buy computers online from Dell) is growing even faster. In 1998, says the GartnerGroup, business-to-business trades over the Internet will total $15.6 billion--and by 2000 that figure will reach $175 billion. "The new economy," says Joe Carter, managing partner at Andersen Consulting, "could rapidly overtake the existing economy as we know it."

There are skeptics. Stephen Roach, chief global economist at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, suspects that e-commerce is being oversold, though he admits it's growing rapidly. "I question if it'll ever be big." He is right when he notes that e-commerce is no more than 1% of the U.S.'s $8.5 trillion economy; in fact, consumer online sales now account for only .2% of total retail. And e-commerce, Roach argues, is hardly on a par with the Industrial Revolution. "This is an intangible cerebral revolution, which is a lot harder to pull out."

But for hundreds of front-line businesses, this cerebral revolution has become very real. And very unpleasant. Talk to the folks at 230-year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica, which two years ago dismissed its entire home sales force in North America after the arrival of the Internet at $8.50 a month made the idea of owning a $1,250, 32-volume set of books seem less appealing. Kids, everyone knew, were just as happy to get their information online or from a CD-ROM. In fact, they preferred it. The 170-year-old Journal of Commerce, which made most of its money from publishing shipping logs every week, has been forced to set sail on a new digital ocean in order to survive. "The future is electronic," says publisher Willy Morgan, who shed 65 staff members and hurriedly set up a website last year when he discovered advertisers were junking the paper in favor of the Net.

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