Cruising Memory Lane in the Webvan

A year ago this month, Webvan called it quits. If it seems like the shutdown happened earlier than that, it might be because the company was on the way out for months before its final exit. Or it might be that, in the big picture, Webvan just didn’t matter that much.

There are constant reminders of its presence, of course. The ironically labeled intellectual property that powered the site is sitting on a shelf somewhere at Kaiser Permanente headquarters. And lawyers still have Webvan on the brain.

Otherwise, though, what has changed? Webvan didn’t take the online grocery industry down with it. Its closure didn’t bog down e-commerce the way some feared it might. Yes, the numbers were big, but in the end, Webvan was just a company.

Symbol Crashes

It was, of course, a symbolic company. In a way, Webvan marked the end of something; it’s just hard to tell what. It was the last e-commerce bankruptcy of substantial size, but that has as much to do with timing as anything else. The biggest companies with the weakest foundations — eToys, Kozmo and the like — had already passed into the dot-com graveyard by the time Webvan went kaput.

Webvan’s flameout didn’t mark the end of online grocery shopping, which now stars brick-and-mortar grocers building the operational and customer base that was needed all along.

And the company’s demise really didn’t even represent the end of hope for e-commerce. Investors still buy eBay and Amazon shares when they can afford them. They still believe, despite the overwhelming evidence that Webvan seemed to provide for giving up the ghost.

Just a Blip

Of course, everything changes with time. All major anniversaries have a gauzy, distant feel to them. But time also provides perspective. What seemed crucial when it was happening now seems, well, ho-hum. Who could have known that a US$1 billion bankruptcy would become a footnote to the dot-com rise and fall?

Yet it seems like Webvan should represent some kind of passage. And maybe it does. Maybe the Webvan lesson is that no single company, no single idea, no matter how grand, no matter how many people buy into it, is big enough to stop a revolutionary industry like e-commerce.

Webvan’s implosion might have given e-commerce a flat tire. It might have slowed down the industry, caused it to miss a few key milestones along the way. But the number of tire-changers volunteering for duty was overwhelming. The Albertsons and Safeways brought money for a new tire, and Webvan’s former customers were more than happy to help jack up the vehicle and get it rolling again.

Webvan might be permanently benched, and that is no doubt a painful memory for many people. But the e-commerce express remains on track.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

1 Comment

  • As always, "rapid" evolutionary transformations take lots of energy for change to take place – and to get it started usually requires a catalyst. Unfortunately, the catalyst doesn’t usually survive the event it launches. As philosophical as your observations might sound, I think you’re "on the mark".

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