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Meet Jane, 72 – the first online shopper

By Klarna

A 72-year-old grandmother sits down in an armchair in her home in England. Her name is Mrs Jane Snowball. It’s May 1984, and in a few minutes, she will go down in history as the world’s first online store shopper.

This historic event happens just days before Bruce Springsteen releases his album Born in the U.S.A.. It’s unclear whether Mrs Snowball herself is aware of the American singer or if she cares enough about his kind of music to put his album on her shopping list in case it would be available.

What is available for sure—to her delight—are 1,000 items from a Tesco store nearby.

The groceries are magically listed on the screen of the television in her room, an ordinary tv modified with a chip. The online-shopping system is called Videotex, invented by entrepreneur Michael Aldrich, and connects to the local Tesco store via a domestic phone line.

There are no product pictures, no “other customers have bought this” recommendations, no customer reviews, nothing like that. But still, Mrs Snowball does get an unheard-of “buy-anything-you-want-without-leaving-your-chair experience”.

With a TV remote in her hands, she unknowingly kicks off something that will become a multi-billion industry. It takes her about 15 minutes to understand how it works.

Her fingers press the numbers 0-9 on the remote to navigate the menu on the television screen. She checks out different categories of groceries and drills down the categories to find what she needs.

Mrs. Snowball decides to order three items:

Cornflakes, eggs, and margarine.

Her order is picked up from Tesco, and when the delivery man shows up with the ordered items, Mrs Snowball pays a few pounds, thus completing the first (offline) transaction of the first online shopping event. Then she puts her margarine in the fridge.

There’s nothing fancy surrounding this historical moment. No hype. No big launch. Quite the opposite. It all takes place as far from today’s popular Silicon Valley as you can imagine. The town is called Gateshead. It is located in the North East of England and is a place you would never want to go to – at least not according to UK immigration, which in January 2007, refused a foreigner entry to Britain on the basis it was “not credible” that anyone would want to spend a week in Gateshead.

Luckily there is footage of the event that can be accessed on YouTube. Are you ready to meet Mrs Snowball? Here she is:

Mrs Snowball admits that her new shopping experience wasn’t like the good old days when she could go to the grocery store herself, meet friends and have a quick chat…. but she is impressed:

– It was wonderful.

It’s unclear if Mrs Snowball ever returned to this way of purchasing her eggs again. The event was more of an experiment than a business launch. It was part of a council trial initiative targeted at helping the elderly. The years then passed by, and it would take another decade, and a network called “the internet”, for the e-commerce industry to take off.

The words ending the TV news story will echo in eternity:  

“Eventually customers will be able to order their groceries and many other things from their television set in their own home because their personal computers will be linked to the big company machine.”

Mrs Snowball unfortunately passed away in 1995, the same year Jeff Bezos started taking his book orders, putting Amazon on the map and pioneering his version of e-commerce.