AuctionBytes Editor Ina Steiner attended the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition (IRCE) in Boston last week where she chaired one day of the Small Retailers track and visited the exhibit hall to talk to vendors and merchants. Here's her recap of the conference.
Internet Retailer is the largest conference geared to all levels of online sellers, and this year, it attracted 368 exhibitors and 5,000 attendees (including speakers, vendors and retailers). There were 91 sessions and 178 speakers with tracks on managing technology; merchandising and website content; marketing; operations; corporate management; small retailers; and web-only retailers ("nothing but 'net").
There were plenty of opportunities for retailers to network, including casual "tweet-ups" (meetups organized by participants via Twitter) and a "women in ecommerce" get-together. SLI Systems sponsored several cocktail parties in the exhibit hall, and Alibaba.com sponsored a networking dinner on Tuesday evening at the Boston World Trade Center. Yahoo merchants were treated to a harbor cruise on Wednesday evening and were able to participate in the first "Yahoo! Merchant Summit" on June 18th.
Overstock.com and eBay Speak to Online Retailers
It was interesting to note that there were no B2C marketplaces in the exhibit hall. However, executives from two marketplaces - Overstock.com and eBay - were featured speakers.
Overstock.com founder and CEO Patrick Byrne gave the keynote address on Tuesday, where he had specific recommendations for retailers in today's economic environment. He said online retailers should measure everything (bookkeepers are vital); outsource anything they are not great at; control expenses (especially payroll and inventory); and look for new business combinations (he sees mergers and acquisitions in the years ahead). Halfway through his presentation, he gave the audience a choice of listening to him speak about his battle with Wall Street, which he said was related to "the economic storm," or stopping to take questions. The audience overwhelmingly chose to hear Byrne's presentation on his battle with Wall Street to fight naked short selling of company stocks.
eBay Senior Vice President and General Manager of eBay North America and Global Platform Stephanie Tilenius was a featured speaker on Wednesday and told attendees eBay wanted to partner with them and explained how eBay is different today. She touted features such as Daily Deals and eBay's new Large Merchant Services API, reporting that third-party solution provider Mercent helped launched MyJewelryBox.com using the LMS API. She also said eBay is able to play matchmaker for large retailers as it did with BCBG, finding it a large eBay PowerSeller to sell on their behalf.
Tilenius told attendees that Zappos launched its liquidation brand using its new Large Merchant Services API. I checked in with the shoe retailer, and Steve Hill, Vice President of Merchandising at Zappos, said, "We did a small test on eBay but are not currently planning on moving forward with it." (We have a question in to eBay on this.)
Tilenius also revealed that eBay may roll out a new program in the fall to enable the best sellers to differentiate themselves. While she revealed few details, she may have been referring to a Certified Seller program hinted at in a seller survey eBay conducted earlier this year.
eBay is testing "flash sales," which appears to be similar to its Daily Deals feature but on a category basis, in the Clothes, Shoes & Accessories (CSA) category in which it offers limited-time offers on certain products. eBay plans to expand the program to other categories after experimenting in the CSA category. She also showed a video of an advertisement geared to holiday shoppers, but did not say if the company would resume television advertising in the fall.
Social Networking (of course)
It seems all conferences these days have social networking on the agenda, and Internet Retailer was no exception. In the Small Retailers track, Forrester Research Senior Analyst Brian Walker and Golfballs.com President & CEO Tom Cox spoke in a session called, "To socialize - or not to socialize," and in the Marketing track, Ilana Rabinowitz of Lion Brand Yarn and Paull Young of Converseon spoke in a session called, "Social Media: If Not Now, When?"
Rabinowitz said 20% of shoppers who come to the Lion Brand Yarn website from one of the retailer's social presences buy merchandise, and Lion Brand Yarn social media users are 83% more likely to be very loyal to the brand compared with those shoppers who don't use social media.
Social networking also came up in other sessions, such as this one on marketing - "Balancing audacity with caution: marketing in a time of uncertainty," where Geary Interactive President and CEO Andreas Roell said, "93% of users of social media expect retailers to be present, and 85% want to interact with retailers."
Ecommerce Solutions for Everyone
In the exhibit hall, retailers could find services to help them with shipping, payment processing, site search, fulfillment, marketing, product sourcing, shopping carts, ecommerce hosting, gift-wrap solutions, market research, consulting, email marketing, analytics, shopping engines and more.
Some vendors showed off services designed to help retailers take advantage of social networking ("social shopping"), such as IMShopping (the founder was one of the co-founders of Andale) and TurnTo. You can listen to a podcast interview with TurnTo CEO and founder George Eberstadt on AuctionBytes' Ecommerce Industry Soundbytes.
AuctionBytes also interviewed Rob Ulveling of TheFind.com to learn more about the shopping search engine and its latest offering for merchants.
Retailers had a chance to speak to representatives of the major search engines - Yahoo, Google and Microsoft, which was showing off its newly named Bing search engine that features a shopping component. Microsoft's Jacob Horn said Microsoft has plans to launch campaigns around Back to School and holiday shopping for the Cashback program, in which eBay participates and seems very popular with shoppers.
Small Retailers Adapt to Changing Economy
As Chair of the IRCE Small Retailers track, I listened to many retailers talk about their businesses and share their success stories. Not surprisingly given the current economic downturn, some sellers addressed the painful topic of layoffs. So it was great to listen to a session on negotiation with Joel Lederhause of DiscountRamps.com as a way to cut costs. Some of his advice: don't get stuck on negotiating solely on price - there are lots of areas you can get vendors to nudge on, like terms, leasing versus owning, service and maintenance agreements and more.
Educating yourself and going into negotiations armed with information is key. He sells items made of steel, and knowing that the price of steel was down helped him negotiate with suppliers. If you don't ask, you won't get it, and in today's economic climate, vendors are expecting you to negotiate, he said. The same principle applies to shipping carriers, vendors and suppliers.
Devon Rifkin of Hangers.com also talked about not getting hung up on price when dealing with new suppliers. He sources products internationally, and said building a relationship with a supplier is critical. He said in this environment, look for ways to cut costs, simplify business, and look for opportunities as a result of the downturn. He believes his practice of inserting a catalog in every box that gets shipped to customers helps generate repeat purchases.
Au-Co Mai, founder of Emitations.com, said she has her photographer shoot product shots and then send them to Vietnam where workers do the PhotoShop cleanup at less cost.
You can see some of the AuctionBytes coverage coming out of the conference in the following articles.
Zappos Launches Liquidation Brand on eBay (link)
Recap of Small Retailers Track at Internet Retailer (link)
Overstock.com CEO Speaks at Internet Retailer Conference (link)
Lots of Bing at Internet Retailer Conference (link)
Internet Retailer is holding its next IRCE conference in Chicago next June, and it will be held in San Diego the following year. We'll keep you posted.