With increased visibility these past months due to the enthusiasm for cryptocurrencies, the blockchain and its advantages have come to light and are visible for all to see. Considered the Holy Grail to remediate the most recurrent problems in our numeric world, this technology is of particular interest for e-commerce. And how? An overview to attempt an answer!
For starters, let’s briefly review the blockchain for a basis of understanding for what follows. If we look at the definition on the site blockchainFrance.net, a blockchain is “a technology for storing and transmitting information in a transparent and secure manner that operates with no central control authority.” To explain this remark, the blockchain is a database that contains the history of all exchanges made between users since its creation. These exchanges are grouped into blocks which are linked to form a chain, a testimony to the data’s origin. The link between these blocks is called a “parent hash” and the blocks are validated and “encoded” using techniques that vary depending on the type of blockchain.
By extension, the blockchain is like a general ledger: “it’s a very large notebook that everyone can openly read free-of-charge, and write in, but it’s impossible to erase and it’s indestructible.” – Jean-Paul Delehaye, mathematician, computer scientist, and author of numerous works on the links between these two areas of expertise.
To get back to e-commerce, the use of blockchains in this market is still in infancy. Certain major groups are interested and the return on investment is there!
End March, Alibaba announced the launch of its first blockchain to ensure the tracking and integrity of its products and so to fight counterfeiting and all sorts of scams in its marketplaces. The first announcement of this blockchain test on March 24, is promising; the group which is looking to export throughout the world must first ensure and optimize the integrity of its products to hope to conquer new markets.
But Alibaba is not the only group to be eyeing blockchains! In France, on January 23, the Carrefour group announced a blockchain application for its food offer starting with an experimental phase on one product, before announcing the application of this technology to eight other business lines within the year. Like Alibaba, Carrefour wants to strengthen the traceability of its products for consumers. The latter will need only scan the product label’s QR code to have all information from supply chain start to finish.
The two American giants, Walmart and Amazon, have also adopted blockchains for the same reasons. Walmart, in collaboration with IBM, is using them to ensure the integrity of its products, and Amazon, still recently reticent with regards to adopting this technology, finally announced end April the launch of blockchain template services within AWS in order to compete against IBM, Huawei, and Oracle.
To answer this question, I’m not risking much by saying “No”. There’s much more to it! Let’s go back to the blockchain’s origin: the exchange between 2 users. The first blockchain application for e-commerce could present itself as a “Smart Contract”. A Smart Contract is a contract that sets the rules as defined by agreement in a blockchain and guarantees the transfer of the asset once contractual conditions have been verified.
For e-commerce, this represents the possibility of having direct reliable transactions between sellers and buyers. One can also see in the blockchain easy access to proof-of-purchase. For example, you want a reimbursement from an e-commerce site, but you can no longer find the email that confirms your purchase. No worries. Happily, for you, the site where you made your purchase uses a blockchain for all its transactions. The problem is solved. The e-merchant has access to this piece of data which proves your purchase.
Another problem solved by a blockchain: fake product reviews. On the one side there are customers who doubt the truthfulness of online reviews, and on the other side are the e-merchants who are tired of their competitors’ dishonest and abusive strategies which bombard them with fake negative reviews. A solution to a prickly problem. Using the blockchain to verify the opinions found on marketplaces. This will not solve the issue of fake reviews already posted but it will strengthen the legitimacy of the next, much like the solution proposed by Zapit.
Another aspect that’s more publicity and has more promise: we could see a use of the blockchain to pay users who post, vote, create, and share their content. Steemit is a perfect example! It works like a social network, where the platform offers users the possibility of financially rewarding one another with the network’s cryptocurrency and so encourages the creation of content and its sustenance. Why not export this principle and apply it to an e-commerce site? The idea seems totally feasible!
Another track to explore: verification of Internet sites. Let’s make a quick detour for advertising: at the moment, blockchains play a pioneer technological role in the verification of sites for advertisers. Take AdChain: AdChain is an open protocol based on the Ethereum blockchain which dresses a list of safe Internet sites for advertisers. This list is determined by vote by those who possess adTokens and decide whether a site is added to the list. To fully understand this voting system, I invite you to read the article written by Nicolas Francisoud, our acquisition expert, on blockchain use for advertisers. Could AdChain presage a similar system for verification of e-commerce sites? A list which constitutes an overall and unforgeable review of a multitude of Internet sites.
But the biggest change brought to e-commerce by blockchains could well be payment! Shopify, an e-commerce solution which has seduced numerous e-commerce sites such as Tesla Motors, RedBull, or yet again, GymShark, and whose strength lies in the 70 accepted payment gateways including cryptocurrencies (Ripple, Bitcoin, Ethereum, or LiteCoin). As each of these cryptocurrencies has its own blockchain, consumers have, if they want, a wide range of payment solutions. For e-merchants, nothing could be simpler. They need only add a payment module (such as the module proposed by CoinBase which is an online platform for the purchase/sale/storage of cryptocurrencies) to perfect their payment solution. The blockchain makes it possible to pay without going through an intermediary. There’s a real benefit for the consumer, and this always represents a category of potential users to target.
Given the use of blockchains by groups with colossal means, our first question is to know if this technology is of profitable interest beyond product integrity in e-commerce. And the answer can be found…. quite simply, in our imagination. This technology has enormous potential, to be sure, and for the time being its use remains “limited” to verification of data. But as stated above, the blockchain can have multiple uses with a force and efficiency that’s distinctly superior, in certain cases, to existing digital measures.
Only time will tell if this technology’s development will be at the level of its promises and surpass all we know. The media’s headlines and use of the expression “Blockchain Revolution” will then have the credit that is somewhat refuted.
Thank you to Nicolas Francisoud for his input on the more technical aspects.