My friend and his buddy invented the online shopping cart back in 1994


Back in 1994 or so, my friend helped out his buddy who worked as the IT department for a local Seattle company known as Sub Pop Records. Here's what their Web site looked like back then. Oh, and in case you were wondering, when I said that his buddy worked as the IT department, I mean that the IT department consisted of one guy, namely him. And this wasn't even his real job. His main job was as their payroll guy; he just did their IT because he happened to know a little bit about computers. (If you asked him, he'd say that his main job was as a band member in Earth.)

The mission was to make it possible for fans to buy records online. Nobody else was doing this at the time, so they had to invent it all by themselves. The natural metaphor for them was the shopping cart. You wandered through the virtual record store putting records in your basket, and then you went to check out.

The trick here is how to keep track of the user as they wander through your store. This was 1994. Cookies hadn't been invented yet, or at least if they had been invented, support for them was very erratic, and you couldn't assume that every visitor to your site is using a browser that supported them.

The solution was to encode the shopping cart state in the URL by making every link on the page include the session ID in the URL. It was crude but it got the job done.

The site went online, and soon they were taking orders from excited fans around the world. The company loved it, because they probably got to charge full price for the records (rather than losing a cut to the distributor). And my friend told me the deep dark secret of his system: "We do okay if you ask for standard shipping, but the real money is when somebody is impatient and insists on overnight shipping. Overcharging for shipping is where the real money is."

(Note: Statements about business models for a primitive online shopping site from 1994 are not necessarily accurate today.)

Comments (25)
  1. JAHA says:

    I don't want to think about how they did the security for entering your credit card info.

  2. RCG says:

    That site has aged way better than most.  I'm glad nobody bothered to make a snapshot of my site in 1996.

  3. Joshua says:

    @JAHA hopefully the was I would have done it — CC goes in at the final checkout page w/ no way to read it back or append more order to it.

  4. Adam Rosenfield says:

    According to Wikipedia¹, the first publicly released version of the SSL spec was SSL 2.0 in February 1995, but that had a number of security flaws; the SSL 3.0 spec was much improved and was released in November 1996.  Of course, it probably took a while before browsers starting supporting SSL.

    ¹ Yes I know Wikipedia is not reliable, but I'm too lazy/unable to validate the sources that it cites

  5. Western Rover says:

    @JAHA: There were a number of websites in the late 1990s that would have you assemble your order online and then phone in the payment info (or even mail a check).

  6. Brian_EE says:

    This seems like a good "prior art" argument to fight the patent troll who is suing places like NewEgg etc over online shopping cart.

  7. Jim says:

    You are making money in an unpredictable way, that's the lesson in any business.

  8. > buy records online

    This combination of old and new technology amuses me.

  9. Antonio 'Grijan' says:

    20 years ago, it was completely different. New albums were still being released in vinyl records, and the most sold medium was the cassette tape. Downloading a short sample from Sub Pop's web (30 second mono, low quality WAVs weighting at about 800 KB) took about about 10 minutes with the then-typical 14400 bps modems. Downloading a full album in 128 Kbps MP3 would have took 8 to 10 hours – and then there would be the problem of storing it, with hard drives in the range of 400 MB and no CD writers. Physical records weren't old technology at all, and selling them in a web store was a great idea.

  10. Scott^N says:

    > This combination of old and new technology amuses me.

    Have you ever read Frank Zappa's mid-1980's proposal for a system of purchasing music via digital transfer over telephone/cable lines?

  11. AsmGuru62 says:

    That reminds me of nowaday TV ads:

    "Ypu'll get a free 2nd set of <insert crap here> just pay a separate S&H."

    What?! "Separate?" They send the box with two sets of … to the same address!

  12. Yuhong Bao says:

    "Yes I know Wikipedia is not reliable, but I'm too lazy/unable to validate the sources that it cites"

    FYI, cookies was released in Netscape 0.9 released in late 1994, SSLv2 was released with Netscape 1.1 released in early 1995 and SSLv3 was released with Netscape 2 released in early 1996

  13. Dave Bacher says:

    @Adam:

    That timeline sounds reasonably close from memory — although I think there was a SSL 1.0 between Netscape servers and Netscape clients before SSL 2.0 was published as a standard.  

    The thing is — a lot of times the web forms would collect the data and then… wait for it…. wait for it… send it by email to some mailbox anyway.  And so you'd fill in that you were ordering, and some guy would get the message, read it, and manually process the order.  

    @Antonio:

    Don't give me a wav!  That stuffs huge — S3M, MOD, MID — I'll load that on my Gravis Ultrasound and it'll sound plenty good with a tiny little file. :P

  14. Nathan says:

    @Antonio

    "Downloading a full album in 128 Kbps MP3 would have took 8 to 10 hours"

    According to the same wikipedia website that people like to cite here (dutch version) MP3 implementations exists since 1994. So while in theory it would have been possible for the site to use MP3 it was surely not so well known & spread as it is now..

  15. MB says:

    For a second there, I thought your friend's buddy was one of the many revolving members of Black Sabbath's lineup (they started off as a blues band called "Earth" in the early days.)

  16. Antonio &#39;Grijan&#39; says:

    @Dave Bacher: I didn't include MODs in my dissertation because their working makes it nearly impossible to legally use them for commercial music: they contain the complete music score, all the samples used by it (which the musician wouldn't be able to license for redistribution from the publishers) and, if the piece isn't instrumental, recordings for every sung verse.

    @Nathan: maybe I should have added a "if they had enough support back then" to the sentence. I knew the specification existed back then (for example, Philip's DCC, the Digital Compact Cassette, released in 1990, was based on MPEG Layer II, a.k.a. MP2), but I thought it wasn't necessary to point that.

  17. old guy says:

    Not sure what qualifies as 'online shopping cart' in your world, but the internet had this function back in the 80's [where you could order, change your order, pay].

    Sears used it.

  18. j b says:

    @old guy,

    In the 80s, the protocols on the internet were lie SMTP for email, FTP for file transfer and Telnet for remote login. The first public presentation of HTML was in 1991 (although work started around 1989 and insiders had probably seen prototypes during 1990).

    Obviously, you could send email to, sya, Sears, telling them to put a selection of goods into a basket, but I don't think that is comparable to the web based shopping carts.

  19. cheong00 says:

    @Dave: Btw, using MIDI for sound recordings is not possible. MIDI is just format that instruction set for combining waveform tables of different musical instruments.

  20. Lev says:

    See how lucky we are that Sub Pop didn't patent the online shopping cart.

  21. Chris Crowther says:

    The other option for payment collection is the one some sites still offer: over the phone.  You submit your order on-line and then you can phone up to just pay for it, rather than having to give the full details of the order over the phone.

  22. Neil says:

    I bet he could have taught Value America a thing or two.

  23. GWO says:

    @Scott^N The bit in the "Real Frank Zappa Book" is actually pretty prescient, considering the man has been dead for twenty years.  When people ask me why I still prefer CDs / LPs and DVDs to purely online services, my default answer is "Fetish and Fondlement Value"

    Also, Sub-Pop is an amazing label.  Much respect for the people who put out SuperFuzzBigMuff.

  24. KC says:

    Make that the late 70s… People forget about the old bbs's and places like Compuserve, Genie, and others that had "online" shopping.

  25. j b says:

    @KC,

    Unless you insist on the electronic ordering mechanism being digital, you might push it back even further, to the 60s or even 50s. Maybe even before that. In my childhood (that would be the 60s) we could transmit our shopping list through analog electronic devices (called "phones") to vendors of, say, foodstuff (i.e. the local grocery store) and have the coontents of our shopping cart delivered to our home, by the end of the day (at the latest).

Comments are closed.