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Fast Lessons in E-Commerce: 7 Successful & Failed MVP Examples in Retail


From huge e-commerce successes to massive losses and failures, these 7 MVP examples in retail show why and how companies can innovate more and faster by properly testing ideas, first

Are you using MVPs to test new e-commerce ideas?

It’s a crucial skill in the world of rapidly evolving retail technology and digital transformation – and being able to test and validate new innovations is the key to unlocking true omnichannel capabilities and being successful in the future of retail.

Here are 7 MVP examples in retail and e-commerce – 4 successful ones and 3 big failures, to help you understand what works, specifically in the retail industry.

Case Studies: 7 MVP Examples in Retail

4 Successful Retail MVP Examples

1. Jef Bezos’ Amazon MVP

In the mid-1990s, Jeff Bezos, a young vice president at a Wall Street firm, saw how fast the internet was growing and had an idea: A virtual store that offered a wider variety of products than any single physical store. 

The Execution

Now, this is normally where entrepreneurs and companies would clear their bank accounts and take years to develop the concept, create a brand, build a beautiful website, dream up features, add lots of products and generally spend lots of time and money on “creating” the virtual store.

But Bezos didn’t do that. He wanted to make sure people would even buy online, so he did two things:

  1. He limited it to just one product type: books.
  2. And created a very simple (albeit very ugly) website, just to test the idea first.

A screenshot of the very first Amazon website (MVP)

The Results 

That may be the worst website design you’ve ever seen, but it did the job:

  • Amazon received orders from across the United States and beyond within weeks of launching, confirming the demand for an online bookstore.
  • Customer feedback highlighted the importance of a broad selection, leading Amazon to expand its inventory significantly.
  • The success of the book sales model validated Bezos’s hypothesis about the internet’s potential for retail, providing a strong foundation for expansion.

Today, Amazon is a $1.85 trillion company.

2. The First MVP of Etsy

In 2005, Etsy founders, Rob Kalin, Chris Maguire and Haim Schoppik were working as freelance website builders. While building a forum for people in arts and crafts, they noticed users complaining about the exorbitant costs of selling their goods on eBay.

An idea was born: A marketplace for crafters.

The Execution

Etsy's MVP was launched with minimal features, just the necessities for sellers to create an account, list their items and for buyers to purchase them. The platform was simple, which allowed Etsy to go live fast and start testing its concept with real users without extensive upfront investment in development or marketing.

The Results

Although it was also an “ugly” website by today’s standards, the team learned fast:

  • The immediate interest and uptake of sellers and buyers confirmed the market demand.
  • Early feedback from users highlighted the importance of a strong community ethos and the need for tools that would allow sellers to customize their shops, tell their stories, and connect more personally with buyers.
  • The MVP phase underscored the importance of simplicity and ease of use in encouraging adoption and fostering a vibrant marketplace.

Today, Etsy is worth $8.07 billion.

3. The Zappos MVP Approach

In the late 1990s, Nick Swinmurn had a few frustrating shoe-shopping experiences, mainly centred around physical stores not having enough stock.

This sparked the idea of an online shoe store.

The Execution

Just like Jeff Bezos, the Zappos founder didn’t even know if people would buy shoes online. Unlike Bezos, though, he didn’t have the money to actually start trading, buying stock etc. So he took a very unique MVP approach.

Instead of actually owning anything, Swinmurn simply went to all his local shoe stores and took pictures of their shoes. He uploaded them online and added a slight mark-up to the price. When someone bought a pair, he went back to the store, bought them and mailed them to the buyer.

The Results

While it didn’t scale, that initial approach proved one thing to Swinmurn: people will buy shoes online. So he knew it was a worthwhile idea to invest in:

  • Zappos's MVP proved that customers were indeed willing to buy shoes online, even without the ability to try them on first.
  • Early on, Zappos identified that exceptional customer service, including a generous return policy, was crucial to overcoming consumers' hesitation about buying shoes online.
  • As orders increased, Zappos shifted to a traditional e-commerce model with its own inventory and warehouses.

In 2009, Swinmurn sold  Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion.

4. Warby Parker Trials Virtual Try-On Software

In the early 2000s, four Wharton Business School friends, Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt, David Gilboa, and Jeffrey Raider, had the idea of lowering the cost of eyeglasses by selling directly online.

The problem was that choosing a pair of glasses was a very personal thing, so most people did it in-person at a store.

The Execution

The team had no idea if people would even buy glasses online, so they created a quick MVP with just a few product options. 

The key factor here was their “home try-on” programme. Between the four friends, they committed to pay the costs of having a set of glasses shipped to the home of any customer, so the customer could try them on and choose a pair.

It makes sense because the team didn’t try and do this for the whole country. They merely committed to doing this for a few first customers (a hundred or so, which would have only been a few hundred dollars), just to test if it’ll actually work.

The Results

When it worked, the team simply started working the costs of the “home try-on” programme into the price of the glasses:

  • The programme was a hit, proving people would buy eyewear online.
  • Customer feedback from the MVP phase highlighted the importance of a seamless user experience.

Today, Etsy is worth $1.5 billion.

3 Massive Retail Failures (That May Have Been Avoided with Proper Testing and an MVP Approach)

1. BeeQuick Grew Too Big Too Fast

In 2014, Chinese startup BeeQuick wanted to revolutionise the grocery delivery sector in China, with rapid fresh produce home delivery. The company raised a lot of capital investment and tried to launch across virtually the entire China with aggressive marketing campaigns almost overnight.

To keep up with its marketing promises, BeeQuick had to almost all the money it had left on expanding its logistics network. The company grew so quickly, it never actually devoted much time to creating good customer experiences or fostering great relationships to secure repeat business.

This meant it had to constantly advertise to get new customers, and then fork over a fortune in delivery costs to serve those customers (rather poorly). Until its operational costs became so high, all the founders could do was sell BeeQuick in 2017.

How an MVP Approach Could Have Made A Difference

An MVP approach would have encouraged BeeQuick to start small, focusing on a specific segment of the market or a limited geographical area. And to focus on first thoroughly understanding customer needs, perfecting customer experiences and getting a handle on operational challenges. 

2. Customers Laughed Juicero Out of Business

In 2013, San Francisco startup Juicero wanted to revolutionise the health and wellness industry with a high-end, Wi-Fi-connected juicing machine that pressed proprietary, pre-packaged fruit and vegetable packets into fresh juice.

It raised a lot of investment and used the money to go straight to product development and start marketing. There was a lot of initial hype around the product, but the cost to produce and market it was immense, so Juicero was extremely expensive.

A few years into the business, customers realised a crucial flaw in the product’s value proposition. It was a fancy, expensive machine that pressed fruit packets. Yet, on social media, people showed that you could press the packet by hand, making fun of customers who paid for it.

This destroyed Juicero’s reputation and it closed shop in 2017.

How an MVP Approach Could Have Made A Difference

An MVP approach would have highlighted the importance of continued product improvement and developing a stronger value proposition. Starting with a simpler, less expensive version of the machine and getting customer feedback may have allowed Juicero to adjust its product and business model accordingly.

3. Eletroloom Didn’t Have Its Technology Ready

Also in 2013, startup Electroloom wanted to revolutionise fashion by creating the world’s first home fashion 3D printer. People would be able to design their own clothes and then 3D-print them at home.

Bolstered by its successful initial funding on Kickstarter, Electroloom’s founders raised Venture Capital to expand, but the technology faced significant challenges, including high costs, limitations in fabric types, and complexity in the printing process.

In the end, Electroloom couldn’t resolve the technical problems with the money it had left, and eventually closed its doors in 2016.

How an MVP Approach Could Have Made A Difference

Adopting an MVP approach would have encouraged Electroloom to start with pilot projects focused on specific applications or early adopters in niche segments before trying to go mainstream. A core part of an MVP is user feedback, which in this case, would likely have highlighted that more development was necessary.

What is MVP in Retail and E-commerce?

A Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a simplistic and scaled-back version of a new technological product or service (an app, website, community, etc.) with just enough features to satisfy early adopters. 

The primary goal is to put something basic out very fast, to learn about customers' problems and needs with minimal effort, before you invest any time and resources in developing the full product. 

For example: If your e-commerce website is running but not making a huge profit, how do you know/decide what step to take next to make your e-commerce profitable? Should you revamp the website, create an app, start a blog, or create various apps and websites targeting different user segments, or should you pivot into a marketplace and drive it using a community portal that helps third-party suppliers do the selling for you?

It could be any one of those. It could be all of them or some of them. Or none. The truth is you just don’t know until you test these ideas in the real world. 

Yet it would be extremely expensive and time-consuming to build out all of those options as fully-fledged digital platforms. You can imagine: How long did it take you to get the last iteration of your website up?

Weeks? Months? Years?

What if we told you that we could roll out comprehensive app MVPs 3 times faster (compare how long an app normally takes) and for 80% cheaper than the standard development time? It’s true, we have the perfect team and tools to create super-fast MVPs.

At that speed, you could test all those platforms as MVPs and have your answer in 3–6 months. So speak to our technology consultants and get the best insights, faster.

How to Run Retail MVPs to Test Ideas Fast & Beat Your Competition

Traditionally, retail companies want to fully develop new services and products before offering them to the public. Yet, the top 10 e-commerce companies are not traditional retailers, they are tech companies.

That’s because tech companies are different: They release small-scale versions of services/products to a select few users, and then let those users test it and tell them what they like and don't like.

It's kind of like letting the customer design the service/product for you. And it’s one of the main reasons they outperform traditional retailers in e-commerce.

Want to know how to do it, too? See our step-by-step guide to the MVP method for e-commerce.

Also discover the latest banking UI trends and get ideas for exciting new fin products with our look at blockchain in banking.

Need help testing new ideas?

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