What Online Retailing Was Like 30 Years Ago

As we mention in the What is Marketing? tutorial, in most industries, keeping ahead of the competition requires organizations be creative in their marketing efforts.  Marketers that simply rely on what has worked in the past, without developing new products, become targets for aggressive competitors who are willing to try new ideas.  

Yet there are times when marketers may be too creative and introduce products that are just too far ahead of their time and, consequently, fall flat once introduced.  There are many reasons for this including: 1) the product is such an innovative concept that customers just do not understand it (e.g., cannot see its real value); 2) the product works well and offers many advantages, but it is hampered by poor business execution (e.g., wrong promotional message); 3) the product faces unavoidable roadblocks that impede its growth (e.g., insufficient infrastructure); or 4) the product is so high priced that few in the target market can actually afford it.

If you are ever looking for a good example of a business idea that was ahead of its time and failed for one or more of these reasons, then take a look at this story from National Public Radio.  This story brings back an early 1980s news report discussing Viewtron, what is likely one of the earliest companies to offer online shopping in the U.S.  Now we are not talking online as we know it today.  This is online in the pre-Internet days carried out over the old videotex service, where a person?s television was hooked up to a set top box that then connected directly to the service?s computer using telephone lines.

When listening to what it took to make a purchase using this service, it is not hard to imagine why customers at the time were not too wild about the idea.  The product selection was limited, the cost just to use the service was significant ($600 for a box and a monthly subscription fee), and many people did not quite understand how it all worked.  In retrospect, the combination of these shortcomings makes it easy to see why this failed.