Wrap-up from IRCE 2010: Small Retailers Position Themselves for Growth
By Ina Steiner
At some ecommerce conferences, there seems to be a high number of vendors compared to retailers, but at the 2010 Internet Retailer conference in Chicago June 8 - 11, retailers definitely outnumbered vendors. Which must have pleased the 420 exhibitors who were trying to reach sellers to tell them how their services could help them grow their online businesses. Internet Retailer said there were 6,371 total attendees, of which 4,250 were paid attendees, its biggest show to date.
A surprising number of attendees I spoke with were from catalog firms, a reflection of consumers' changing shopping behavior. The sessions were crowded, and I was very impressed with the number of participants in the Small Retailers track, especially in the morning sessions.
The experience also confirmed that eBay had acted for many years as an ecommerce incubator. I spoke to longtime AuctionBytes readers Jeff Bishop of Dreamway Trading and Michael Jansma of GEMaffair.com who once derived most or all of their online revenue from eBay, but now sell primarily on their own websites as well as on Amazon.com. These stories are repeated over and over again, and on Thursday, Forrester Research's Brian Walker tweeted an interesting - and not surprising - statistic: 45% of small-medium ecommerce businesses started on eBay.
Yahoo Stores seems to have done a much better job of retaining merchants than eBay over the years. The positive energy at the Yahoo Merchant Summit (YMS) on June 11 reminded me of how sellers once felt about their eBay Stores. Yahoo managers made sure to convey the commitment to Stores from Yahoo, which has a new CEO in Carol Bartz. The YMS sessions I attended on Friday before heading back to Boston were on target, and Yahoo seems to be innovating - it revealed that Yahoo Stores was going mobile through a partnership with Unbound Commerce.
As Chairman of the Small Retailers track, I sat for an entire day listening to small merchants and vendors discuss their strategies for marketing, online reputation, customer engagement and product sourcing. All of the sessions were good. Listening to the questions at the end of each session and hearing feedback from attendees at the end of the day, it was obvious that small retailers were at the event to learn about ways to grow their businesses.
Eric Best of Mercent and Eric Heller of FootSmart.com started the day with a discussion of e-marketing and the importance of visibility - they advised leveraging every new channel you can effectively reach, getting into marketplaces, comparison shopping engines and search engines. They also advised you measure the performance of all of the marketing and merchandising you do.
One important takeaway was the importance of product feeds, which not only get your products exposure in natural search, but also power much of the innovative advertising programs being created (they mentioned Google Product Listing Ads, Comparison Ads, Product Extensions - formerly Plus Box, and One Box).
They said 50% or more of search results-page real estate is tied to data from product feeds. "Fifty percent of the Google search page requires you to get your feed right. That's an incredible thing to try and optimize for." (This would not be the last time during Internet Retailer that I saw a slide showing a screenshot of a Google search results page - merchants are obsessed with gaining visibility on Google!) They also shared the following statistics:
- 1 in 5 Google searches is product/shopping related
- 40-45% of Google AdWords come from the retail vertical
Social Media and Reputation
Neal Creighton, CEO of RatePoint, and Deep Patel, CEO of GoGreenSolar.com, cited a figure from Internet Retailer (September 2009) that showed 67% of consumers will buy more when they see reviews. They advised merchants to work with dissatisfied customers to make them repeat buyers, turn satisfied customers into brand-champions, and have a long-term vision of the impact reputation can have on sales and customer retention. They also advised retailers to:
- move from reactive to proactive;
- not to be afraid of negative feedback;
- and to make it easy to collect (and ultimately showcase) feedback.
Customer Engagement Strategies
Rob Snell, co-owner of Gun Dog Supply, and Julie Swatek, President of Scrap Your Memories, talked about "lean and mean" customer engagement strategies. Rob strongly advised you put a name and face on your website. He talked about his strategy of showcasing his brother, an expert on training dogs, on the family's retail website. He showed a slide that displayed the growth trajectory of the site before making the change, and what happened after making the change, and he credited the strategy with a $10 million uplift in sales.
Establishing authority and the accompanying content helped with search engine optimization and boosted conversion and average order size. "Don't be afraid to express your opinion," Rob advised.
Julie then discussed her approach to email marketing and her "no boundaries" style of communication. She said the stronger the human bond, the stronger the business bond, and said people want to do business with people they like. In her blog posts and emails, she gets personal, chronicling her recent divorce, for example, and she said she has inspired several women to start their own businesses.
As a result of her personal communication style, people are eager to receive her emails, and she said sales increase dramatically after she sends out each email newsletter.
Marketing with Comparison Shopping Engines
Alan Higley, Vice President of Internet Marketing for Coolibar.com and Brian Smith, President of SingleFeed, discussed whether retailers should outsource the management of sending product feeds to comparison shopping engines. Feed providers can charge a flat rate, a percentage of sales, or a hybrid.
Titles and descriptions are two big drivers of success on shopping engines. Key questions for retailers using Comparison Shopping Engines are:
- Are you testing different Titles and Descriptions?
- Do you have a way to administer these tests quickly and easily yourself? Can you manipulate your own feed?
Alan advised sellers to "Just get going ASAP." It can take a while to get up and running, so start by signing up with each shopping engine. You must then fund the accounts, build data feeds, submit your feeds, and fix errors. Brian said that each shopping engine might perform differently, so you have to test each one.
When to Expand Your Business
Jason Roussos, President and COO of Living Direct, talked about the challenges and opportunities of business growth. Innovation is key to growing your business, according to Jason, who advised merchants build a culture of innovation, and to "fail often, early, and inexpensively." He said numbers can be misleading - for example, a company may be growing while the industry itself is dying. When evaluating growth opportunities, you should be asking:
- is the opportunity real?
- is the opportunity worth it financially?
- and, can you win?
At the end of the day, two sessions dealt with the all important issue of product sourcing - where can you get the products you sell? Annie Xu, General Manager, America of Alibaba Americas (AliExpress.com) and Leigh Dcvonic, Sourcing Director of GENCO Marketplace, explained how their respective marketplaces work, and Kevin Hickey, Vice President of Marketing at OnlineStores.com, described his experience in developing 20 plus overseas suppliers.
Kevin said his company buys $2 million a year in goods, and sells them for over $5 million. He gave seven reasons for buying products directly from overseas suppliers, including higher margins, better value for your customers, and the ability to sell both retail and wholesale.
Some other takeaways from the session included:
- you do not have to buy huge quantities in order to source directly from manufacturers;
- you should research, research, research;
- and negotiate with your suppliers on everything.
David Redlich, President of ReStockIt.com, wrapped up the day by blowing everyone away with his discussion of product line expansion to fuel growth. What was so impressive, besides the fact that he was such a dynamic speaker, was that he had defined a concrete goal and was doing everything to more toward that goal. David wants ReStockIt.com to be the Amazon of the B2B space.
I would ask readers, do you have a simple way to describe your business like this one: "ReStockIt.com is a leading eTailer of Supplies for Small Businesses"?
Once you figure out your goal, it makes it easier to make decisions about how to grow your product line and to keep moving forward. When evaluating a product line, you should ask a number of questions, including: is there demand, does it fit your brand, and does it fit your vision? Can your infrastructure handle the opportunity? And, David said, just because it is easy doesn't mean it is a good fit - it's okay to just say no.
Despite the fact that attendees had had a long day of sessions, had meetings, dinner and parties to go to that evening, and an early day the next day back at the conference, people had lined up to speak to David when his session ended at 5:30 pm. Small retailers know how to seize an opportunity to learn more and to network!
All Eyes on Google
I was particularly interested to learn what Google's new VP of Ecommerce would have to say during her keynote on the following day. Stephanie Tilenius seemed to speak with less confidence than at last year's Internet Retailer conference when she spoke on behalf of eBay, but attendees were more attentive to what she had to say this year, since so many depend on Google for traffic. I put together a video of some of the highlights of her talk, the topics I thought AuctionBytes readers would be most interested in hearing.
Stephanie said Google was interested in learning whether retailers wanted transactions to take place on the Google platform. Take a look at this post from Chris Dixon's blog, "While Google fights on the edges, Amazon is attacking their core" (hat tip to Eric Heller), and you'll understand why. It would be revolutionary for Google to become a shopping destination where consumers could actually make purchases on the site, and retailers voiced their concern over whether Google would ultimately compete with them.
Summing It Up
There was also the same talk at IRCE heard every year from the pundits - targeting mobile and social networking - but with more focus on local than in previous years, and with some discussion of "remarketing" (marketing to shoppers after they've left your website) to improve conversion rates. Overall, attendees and vendors were positive, and I hope that's an indication that the rest of 2010 will be a strong one economically.
My biggest takeaway from IRCE 2010 is that small retailers are focused on growth. If you can't make it to conferences, don't let that hold you back from networking with your peers and learning new skills. One of the panelists at a Women in Ecommerce workshop at IRCE advised that retailers keep learning. Read books and take free courses on the Internet to keep learning new skills, she said.
"Take destiny into your own hands. No one is stopping you."
AuctionBytes Coverage of Internet Retailer Conference 2010
June 8, 2010
Internet Retailer Conference Kicks Off Today, AuctionBytes Blog - Brian Smith of Singlefeed discussing Facebook and ecommerce. Includes Video clip.
June 9, 2010
Notes from the Floor of IRCE 2010, AuctionBytes Blog - Greg Holden writes about his day visiting vendors in the exhibit hall and listening to several sessions.
Ecommerce Conference Breaks Record Attendance, AuctionBytes Newsflash - Internet Retailer shares attendance figures.
June 10, 2010
Live Blogging Google's Keynote from Stephanie Tilenius, AuctionBytes Blog - Greg Holden live-blogs Stephanie Tilenius' keynote address.
Ecommerce VP Brings eBay Philosophy to Google, AuctionBytes Blog - Highlights from the keynote address given by Google's VP of Ecommerce Stephanie Tilenius, formerly of eBay. Includes Video clip.
Payvment Shows How Ecommerce on Facebook is Done, AuctionBytes Newsflash - Payvment CEO Christian Taylor gives us a an excellent video tour of his company's service that allows sellers to easily set up storefronts on Facebook. Includes Video clip.
June 11, 2010
Women in Ecommerce Face Unique Challenges, AuctionBytes Newsflash - The Women in Ecommerce networking group held a dinner and panel discussion.
Jerry Yang Has Message for Retailers at Yahoo Merchant Summit, AuctionBytes Newsflash - notes from the second Yahoo Merchant Summit that featured Yahoo Store owners and developers.
Podcasts from IRCE
Meg Robinson Explains Shotfarm's Product-Photo Service (June 9, 2010) - Link
DiscountRamps.com Is Ramping up at Internet Retailer (June 10, 2010) - Link
GEMAffair's Michael Jansma on Monetizing Social Media (June 10, 2010) - Link
About the author:
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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