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Wednesday, August 4, 1999 Published at 14:32 GMT 15:32 UK

Business: The Economy

The e-commerce revolution

Bookselling has been changed dramatically by companies like

The e-commerce revolution will give more power back to the consumer, as the BBC's Rodney Smith reports.

The consumer - you and me - already wields considerable power in some parts of the world. The United States' service-with-a-smile retail market is famous for the attention is gives to the customer.

[ image: Rodney Smith]
Rodney Smith
The French may not be so well-blessed, or maybe that only applies to tourists. And Britain has its weaknesses.

But, that's all that is about change.

E-commerce is going to change it.

It will be available initially only to those who have access to computers. But that will change as the market grows.

E-commerce boutiques will be followed by computer stalls in stores, to holes-in-the-wall, like bank ATMs, where suitably coded shoppers will be able to tap their choices onto a screen.

It's going to be service at a key stroke.

Banking leads the way

Look at banking. The hole in the wall has grown in less than two decades from a crude punched card terminal to today's all singing and dancing Automated Teller Machine.

It barely stretches the imagination to visualise how that will happen with e-commerce. Why will people bother?

After all, shopping can be fun, you get to see, feel, smell or even taste what you are buying.

The answer is in the nature of the way e-commerce will interact with manufacturers.

The end of mass production

Already, mass-production techniques are more flexible than they have ever been.

Because e-commerce is accompanied by computer-driven changes in both manufacturing and distribution of goods, they are pushing back the uniformity of the mass-produced culture which followed the Industrial Revolution.

Coalbrookdale, at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum at Telford in Shropshire, where Abraham Darby's coke furnace started the Industrial Revolution, is also a monument to early mass production.

Cooking pots and pans, stoves, all manner of utensils, all proudly moulded exactly like one another.

Mass production brought huge cost and production savings. Slowly this uniform process became the norm.

Factories were built to produce endless goods, all largely identical. Expensive to manufacture handmade goods became the preserve largely of the wealthy.

But mass production brought prices down and put goods within reach of people who otherwise could not have afforded them.

It also brought uniformity. Now the person with one big foot could not go to the cobbler for a big and a small shoe, to take an extreme example, but must take two pairs. The fat man struggles to find trousers to fit, the fashion-conscious young woman finds she's wearing the same dress as her friend.

The village touch

The village touch had gone. People could no longer buy goods with the personal touch.

That is where the big change is coming. Mass production will still be there, but manufacturers will adapt to offer much greater consumer choice.

The shopper in need of a shoe will be able to fax a footprint to the shoe shop, or the factory, or the local supply depot, and shoes of the correct size will be despatched. The banker, male or female, will be able to order a suit to fit, from the screen on his or her desk.

The basic trend towards flexible manufacturing to meet the customer has already been happening to a degree in the motor industry.

Manufacturers which in the past had to minimise change in models to maximise returns, have for some while been able to make small production runs of specialist vehicles. These can be even further dressed up to particular customers' special requirements.

And this will become the new norm. The old uniform mass production will have had its day, village shopping will return, even if you're only connection with the shopkeeper or his clerk is via a screen.

And shopping need not lose its glamour. Stores will be there still, especially the big ones. But for that proportion of consumers who find shopping a necessary evil, the internet and e-commerce will be a huge blessing.

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