March 7, 2021

What should we call Ecommerce and is it a Sector?

Dr Peter Mowforth

We’ve recently had an interesting discussion with a group of people whose job it is to help shape and direct our national economy. To help ensure we we all had a shared view that would allow us to write something we could agree on, two interesting points came up:

  1. What should we call ‘Ecommerce’?
  2. Is it a Sector?

I had thought the answers here were simple and straightforward. How wrong can a man be?One of the important ways that language works is that we can all ascribe a common and shared label (name/brand) to a common thing or concept. The ‘colour’ we might all call ‘green’ is the one that when the traffic signal shows then it’s OK to proceed. The logic remains even if you are colour blind … you just get to the same answer by a different route (e.g. it’s the light at the bottom). Even a blind person might ask somebody next to them “is the walk sign green?” simply to demonstrate shared understanding rather than any direct perception.The common starting point to answer the ecommerce question should be to agree what is the common concept behind ecommerce. Let’s agree that the concept involves commercial transactions conducted electronically on the Internet. Type “ecommerce definitions” into Google to get started if you want your own literature review. The key point is that there is a surprising unanimity within the literature about what defines the topic. Note that this is a different point to ‘what are the component parts of ecommerce’ which covers Consumer to Consumer ecommerce (C2C), retail ecommerce (B2C), wholesale ecommerce (B2B) or e-procurement or technical differentiators such as EDI, mcommerce, punch-out or app-based systems.Assuming we all agree on the concept, the second step is to find out the most common label, word or words that are used to name it. The following shows a Google trends (search volume over time) graph for a few candidate names for the concept:

Typing e-commerce and ecommerce in quotes into Google (so as to get the exact string matches) shows e-commerce having around 187 million occurrences and ecommerce having around 200 million occurrences on Google-indexed pages..While the above analysis is for global data, exactly the same patterns apply when limiting searches to either just the UK or just Scotland.To answer the original question about what to call ‘it’, the evidence given by the three billion people that use the Internet either as generators of information or users of information provides a clear answer. ‘It’ is ecommerce.

Using the Google search string (e-commerce | ecommerce) "sector", yields over a million pages - many from authoritative sources including the European Union, Wikipedia, the OECD, major banks and the UK Government DIT. It would appear that the only reason for calling it a sector was to recognise that it seems to be a distinct clustered topic with its own technology, its own set of skills, its own practitioners and its own business drivers. Is that enough to call it a sector? Personally I really don’t care. Even if a spade is called a spade, I’m much less interested in the linguistic niceties for spade terminology than in its ability to dig a hole. With ecommerce we should worry much less about semantics, follow the consensus, and focus on how ‘it’ can be put to work to help create trade - and that’s something we should all agree is defined by creating wealth, jobs and exports.

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