Banks, bookshops, holiday companies, software firms, stamp companies, record shops, and even supermarkets are are using the Internet with relish. If you can think of it, you can buy it online. Sales of products on the Internet topped pounds 8.8m in the UK last year, but are expected to have grown to pounds 130m by 2002, according to research company Datamonitor.
Dell Computers, a PC company that founded its reputation on sales of computers by phone, has been selling its computers via the Internet in the US for over two years, and started this in Europe in May last year. Worldwide it sells pounds 3.5m worth of computers a day and over pounds 600,000 a day in Europe. The company sells 12 per cent of its machines via the internet, but hopes to make this 50 per cent by 2000.
"We believe this is the way of the future for commerce generally," says Paul Roff, the company's European Internet development manager. He believes Web shopping has made things easier for both customer and for the company. "It can save time. It used to take us on average three calls to close a sale but that closure rate has dropped to just half a call per order. Sometimes we still need to call back to check a detail on financing, or whatever.
"Things are certainly a lot easier for customers. They used to have to ask specific questions to get the right information, but now all the information is available there in front of them [on the Website]." says Mr Roff.
For the moment most retailing is fairly straightforward. Surfers are using the internet to buy train tickets, computer software, CDs, books - generally products they know and trust. Before long more variable products, like fresh produce, will be sold on the Internet. This may require adding better quality pictures and interactive images to the Web shopping experience.
That revolution could be coming not via the computer, but via digital television. All the digital television providers are eyeing our online wallets. Even in the early days there will be interactive advertisements. Using the remote control, you will be able to request further information from advertisers via the modem attached to the digital television. Within a year or more, there will be fully integrated television receivers that incorporate a Web browser and a television advertisement will automatically connect you to a Website where more information will be available.
The rise in online shopping has not been without hitches. Companies like Dixons, Argos and Barclays have tried but failed to make an impression.
"Lots of companies have real trouble branding themselves successfully on the internet," says Mr. Bieler. But while some of their efforts have even been damaging to the brand, now is the time for companies to experiment online, he says. With few shoppers, companies can learn from their mistakes and prepare for the future.