Remember Webvan.com? A lot of people do, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone with anything nice to say about it. At the dawn of the internet retail revolution, Webvan was supposed to do for groceries what Amazon had done for books. The site failed miserably. But that's not what futurists of the year 2000 predicted for it.
Founded in 1999, Webvan was a high-profile darling of Silicon Valley with major financial backers. And yet, by 2001, the company was one of the largest failures of the first dot-com bust, blowing through $1 billion in just 18 months and firing over 4,500 employees. After it went public, Webvan's stock climbed to $30 per share. A few months later, the stock had crashed to just $0.06 per share.
Even before the advent of the internet, predicting the future of retail was an incredibly hard business. Customers are fickle. Brands come and go. And it's hard to tell what might be popular in consumer goods a year from now, let alone ten years from now. But in the year 2000, futurist Frank Feather dared to predict what the online retail landscape might look like by the year 2010.
The awkwardly titled book, FutureConsumer.com: The webolution of shopping to 2010, touches on everything from music downloads to grocery delivery, with a big emphasis on lists. And it's Feather's list for the 50 largest online retailers of 2010 which now stands as a fascinating time capsule of the first dot-com bubble. Naturally, Webvan makes the Top 5.
The Big 5 (by order of size)
Quixtar, for those unfamiliar, was one of those "multi-level marketing" businesses that is totally not a pyramid scheme. In 2009, the company was folded into Amway, which dropped the Quixtar brand.
The next 45 biggest weren't put in order of size, but rather listed alphabetically.
- Bertelsmann/Barnes & Noble
- Dow Jones
- Fannie Mae
- Home Depot
- New York Times
- Office Depot
- Washington Post
- Wells Fargo
Like nearly all predictions from futurists, Feather got a few right and a few wrong. But there are some sites on the list that look way out of place. What the hell is Petopia.com? Or remember Knight Ridder? And may Borders bookstore rest in peace.
Otherwise, some of these predictions weren't half bad. It was a smart move on his part to stick with a lot of established companies, including banks, consumer goods and major media companies. Not all of these are even in the same form that they were in 2000, and a few were failed joint ventures like Ford-Carpoint, Ford's online sales partnership with Microsoft. But even what we consider a solid company wasn't a lock to succeed beyond 2000. If Webvan failed so hard, who's to say that a site like Amazon was even close to a safe bet? It wasn't. But Feathers accurately predicted that companies like Amazon (and even Walmart, to a certain extent) would dominate the online retail space in 2010.
Many of the companies (the newspaper companies especially) aren't doing quite as well as Feather had predicted. And in perhaps the most telling example of just how ephemeral the internet is, the website for Feather's book, future-consumer.com, is no longer active.
Doing a cursory search for his name, Feather seems to be doing quite well as a business futurist here in the future. I wonder what he'd predict might be the biggest online retailers of 2020. Who's the Webvan of our generation? Is there any hope of avoiding a new dot-com bubble burst? Only time (and billions upon billions of dollars) will tell, I suppose.
Image: Frank Feather, scanned from the 2000 book futureconsumer.com: The webolution of shopping to 2010