Why would anyone buy online? In the 1990s, Jeff Bezos thought the internet was a terrible place to spend time in. To get people to spend time there, web developers had to go above and beyond.
As Bezos explained in 1998, "the web is a pain to use today! We’ve all experienced the modem hangups and the browsers crash — there are all sorts of inconveniences: websites are slow, modem speeds are slow." In consequences " if you’re going to get people to use a website in today’s environment, you have to offer them overwhelming compensation for this primitive infant technology. And I would claim that that compensation has to be so strong."
Looking at the world, Bezos figured his fledgling startup would survive only if it could enable people "to do something online that you can't do in any other way. In his case, that meant allowing people to access an inventory of 2.5 million books as opposed to the 175,000 you could find in the largest physical stores.
Listening to Bezos's 1998 speech in 2021 clarifies how much the world has changed. Today, so many things are so much easier to do online — faster, cheaper, offering better service, and more variety. Today, it is the offline world that has to persuade people to step in (or, out).
Anyone who is developing or operating stores, offices, hotels, and even whole cities has to operate as if the default option for customers is to be somewhere else — that there's an easier way for customers to get what they need.
How does one persuade people to change their default option? Bezos has an answer for that, too. In Invent and Wander, published last year he writes:
Since our founding, we have strived to maintain a “Day One” mentality at the company. By that I mean approaching everything we do with the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of Day One...In my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the best way to achieve and maintain Day One vitality. Why? Because customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and a constant desire to delight customers drives us to constantly invent on their behalf.
Focusing on customers sounds like common sense, but most of the built world was not designed and is not operated with this mindset. Even the word "customer" — as opposed to "tenant", "occupier", "resident", "citizen" — is hardly ever used by the people who shape the cities and buildings we live in. For a long time, they could get away with it. People had no choice or didn't realize they had a choice.
Now, people realize they have a choice and for many activities, online has become the default. This is not bad news. In 2021, It's Day One for the offline world and there's an army of entrepreneurs, thinkers, and investors looking to make the most of it. Go big or go home — and order something from Amazon.