May 27, 2010, 12:11 PM

IRCE preview: Time to reboot

With double-digit growth returning to e-commerce, a record turnout is expected at e-retail’s biggest show.

The recession underscored the growing role of the Internet in retail. Not only did web sales increase 2% last year while overall retail sales dropped 7%, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, surveys show consumers increasingly start their shopping trips on their PCs—and their mobile phones—searching for the best prices, the most up-to-date product information and other consumers’ opinions.

Now the economy is on the mend, and online retail is returning to double-digit growth, with e-commerce sales up 18.4% in March, according to MasterCard’s SpendingPulse survey. Little wonder that so many retailers are making plans to attend the world’s largest e-commerce event, the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition 2010 June 8-11 at McCormick Place West in Chicago. Based on registrations through mid-April, organizers expect total attendance at IRCE 2010 will exceed 6,000, breaking the event’s previous high of 5,148 set in 2008, which was a record for any e-commerce trade show.

“Last year our total attendance at IRCE dropped 6% to 4,826 because of the economy’s deep recession,” says Jack Love, president and CEO of Vertical Web Media LLC, organizer of IRCE and publisher of Internet Retailer magazine. “We were planning on a solid comeback this year, but none of us expected anything this good.”

The exhibit floor at IRCE, the largest display of e-commerce technology anywhere, is certain to set a record, as booth space sold out last month. There will be 408 industry vendors represented on the 170,000-square-foot exhibit floor, up from 368 last year.

Do it all
The conference theme, “Time to Reboot,” reflects e-retailers needing to catch up with technology advances and shifts in consumer behavior that continued apace, even while shoppers spent more cautiously during the recession.

The way consumers shop has changed, as sophisticated mobile phones and online social interaction have become a big part of the buying process. The conference’s keynote speaker, Imran Jooma, senior vice president and general manager of e-commerce at Sears Holdings Corp., was chosen because Sears has been a leader in responding to these shifts, introducing mobile web sites and apps, attracting nearly a half million consumers to its online community, and innovating in tying together stores and web sites. “To give customers choice requires having many different solutions,” Jooma says. “That’s why we don’t just offer one platform.”

Featured speakers come from all the major segments of online retail. Besides retail chains, represented by Sears, there will be major presentations from senior executives of consumer goods manufacturers, catalogers and web-only retailers. A late addition to the agenda is Stephanie Tilenius, who recently joined Google Inc. as vice president of e-commerce. Tilenius spoke last year at IRCE in Boston when she was an executive at eBay Inc.

The conference will feature 175 speakers in 91 sessions, and they will address the latest developments in e-commerce basics, such as e-mail marketing and web-selling platforms, while also providing first-hand reports from the cutting edge—how to sell on Facebook, what consumers are buying on their mobile phones and how to join in the retail-related discussions that continually rage online.

For instance, attendees will hear about how CableOrganizer.com dug into every bit of feedback from customers—in product reviews, an online suggestion box, blogs and other web sources—to improve its operations. “There are no better business coaches than dissatisfied customers,” says Paul Holstein, chief operation officer at the online retailer. “Using their feedback and suggestions as the basis for change not only broadens your viewpoint and increases expertise, but boosts your bottom line as well.”

Mobile is now
Among the many speakers to address mobile commerce will be Eoin Comerford, vice president of marketing for Moosejaw Mountaineering, a leader in mobile marketing. The still-low conversion rates of mobile initiatives might lead some retailers to take a wait-and-see approach, Comerford says. “But those retailers are going to miss out on a key interaction point with their consumers—one that can happen at the early stages of the consideration process that ultimately ends in an e-commerce sale.”

Many retailers also wonder if marketing on social networks works, and Jessica Kornacki speaks from experience when she says it can—if properly managed. “I’ll be sharing practical, real and tangible ways to approach it so that attendees can walk away with ways to test, measure and integrate social media as part of their overall marketing strategy,” says Kornacki, vice president of global sales and marketing for online travel site Endless Vacation Rentals.

Kornacki will be speaking during the full-day social media workshop that will take place June 11, simultaneously with a workshop on mobile commerce. On June 8 there will be three day-long workshops. Two will focus on search marketing—one geared to beginners and the other to experienced practitioners—and the third on e-commerce technology.

A new addition to the IRCE agenda is a workshop designed to help women advance their careers in online retailing. The event, entitled “Women in E-Commerce 2010: Challenge and Opportunity,” will take place on the evening of June 10. It will be a special meeting of the professional organization Women in E-Commerce and be co-sponsored by Internet Retailer and consulting firm FitForCommerce.

Other speakers at the evening workshop will be Andrea Gulli, vice president of e-commerce at multichannel retailer New York & Company; Susan Aplin, CEO of e-retailer Bambeco.com; Shirley Tan, director of e-commerce at AmericanBridal.com; Esther Steinfeld, marketing manager at Blinds.com; and FitForCommerce CEO Bernardine Wu, who will moderate the event.

With a half-dozen workshops, 91 conference sessions and 408 technology vendors in the exhibit hall, IRCE attendees are sure to come away with plenty of ideas about how to build their online retail businesses as the economy picks up steam.

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