Ecommerce 2.0: Hope or hype?

By Sarah Lacy , written on February 11, 2013

From The News Desk

Ecommerce is a weird category that seems to be getting weirder.

It was by far one of the first things to take off when people started adopting the Web. People were relatively comfortable buying things online, because it was similar to the pre-existing catalog business. And deep incentive payments, funded by venture capital, allowed companies to further incentivize bargain hunters to make the jump.

But since the Internet bubble, we've had exactly one US-based ecommerce exit worth $1 billion: Zappos' sale to Amazon. Sure the category still growing at double digits, but ecommerce represents well under 10 percent of all retail sales.

There's been a lot of hope for the so-called ecommerce 2.0 movement -- whether it's flash sales, subscription commerce, social commerce, or content-as-commerce. But the company credited for started a lot of the excitement, Gilt, has struggled on the way to an IPO.

Signs of hope persist: Valuations of Fab and Zulily have been sky high. But there are also signs that the hope was all really hype, as companies like ShoeDazzle and Beachmint have stumbled after early leads and the usefulness of sites like Pinterest in converting sales still remains uncertain.

VCs -- credited with being lemmings -- are in wild disagreement about how promising this upcoming crop of companies are. Some VCs, like Marc Andreessen, see this as the very early innings of something massive for ecommerce, anticipating a big coming decline for brick and mortar retailers and more people having to buy things online whether they want to or not.

Other VCs wildly disagree. I've heard from a few sources that seed deals in the ecommerce space are hard to come by, as investors worry that they won't even be able to get a series A when the time comes.

And there's the worry that category leaders are merely using venture capital to "buy revenue"-- ala the late 1990s. As Josh Kopelman said at last week's PandoMonthly, the difference between acquiring customers and "buying revenue" is a fine line between how much you think the lifelong value of a customer is and what it proves to be. That can't be proven immediately, so it's a bit of a bet even for the most consistent players.

Meanwhile, to complicate the picture further, while people may have overestimated gimmicks like flash sales and social, we all seem to have underestimated the quick impact that mobile commerce could have. There doesn't seem to be much reluctance at all to buy high-priced items on smart phones, and several young retailers are seeing 30 percent or more of conversions happen on mobile.

What's more: Mobile doesn't seem to be cannibalizing traditional ecommerce. It's allowing people to shop online at times they're not at their computers: Holidays, evenings and weekends.

One post isn't going to resolve all this. But we're hoping a month of posts may shed some light. Today, we're launching a month-long special report on the state of ecommerce where we'll talk to some of the biggest companies and investors and try to make sense of the whole thing. Keep checking under the "Ecommerce 2.0 or" box on the front page for the latest.

[Image Credit: stallio on Flickr]