May 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Retail's reality show

IRCE 2012 reflects the reality of the web's growing role in retail.

Lead Photo

It's no accident that top executives of two of the top U.S. retail chains will speak back to back in the first general session this year at the world's largest e-commerce event, the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition 2012, to be held in Chicago June 5-8.

Both of those top retailers have placed big bets on the web, despite their large physical store footprints. Barnes & Noble Inc. elevated William Lynch, who will deliver the keynote address at IRCE 2012, from e-commerce director to CEO two years ago and charged him with turning the bookstore chain into a major e-commerce force. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s Joel Anderson, president and CEO of Walmart.com, leads not only e-commerce but also the innovative @WalmartLabs think tank that's breaking new ground in social and mobile marketing (see cover story, page 26).

These are not the only chains putting more focus on the web. The shift in thinking at big retail chains is reflected in the record registrations for IRCE, says Jack Love, publisher of Internet Retailer, which sponsors IRCE. He expects 9,000 to attend IRCE this year, which would be a 23% increase from the 7,300 who attended IRCE 2011 in San Diego, the previous attendance record for an e-commerce conference.

Part of the growth stems from the nearly 16% growth in the e-commerce market last year, Love says. But there's also a fundamental shift going on in retail strategy. "Retail chains, in particular, are recognizing that growth won't come from additional real estate, but from the web," Love says. "Chains, as well as catalogers and manufacturers, and of course the Internet pure plays, all see a fundamental shift to consumers preferring to shop online, and that's led to a shift in their strategic focus from traditional forms of retailing to this new form of retailing."

Making the connection

These changes in consumer behavior and retailer strategy underlie the conference theme—"Connecting With the 21st Century Consumer"—which is the idea that retailers today must leverage the web in every aspect of their business, whether they ultimately close the sale in a store, on a web site, via a phone call or through a mobile commerce site or app.

That theme will be addressed in 100 conference sessions featuring 175 speakers and by special guest speaker Fareed Zakaria, host of the CNN international affairs program Fareed Zakaria GPS and editor at large for Time magazine. There will be conference tracks aimed at retail chains and smaller web-only retailers, and session groupings focused on such themes as social commerce, e-commerce technology, fulfillment, merchandising and web site design, and online marketing. Full-day workshops before and after the main conference will take up mobile commerce, social commerce, search marketing, technology and managing for e-commerce profitability.

Attendees also will be able to visit more than 550 companies in the Exhibit Hall, which IRCE organizers expect will be 16% larger than last year, making it by far the world's largest exhibition of e-commerce services and technology.

In conference sessions, participants will hear from some of the retailers that have gone the furthest in connecting with today's consumers—making their promotions personal and easily accessible by all the devices shoppers use today, including smartphones and tablet computers like the iPad. A prime example is Gilt Groupe, the flash-sale retailer that hit a half billion dollars in online sales last year by Internet Retailer estimates, and that sends 3,000 versions of its daily marketing e-mails to members, ensuring that it's offering only the most relevant deals.

"We know so much about consumers at the site and we're in a position to build the most personal shopping experience," says Gilt chief strategy officer Alexis Maybank, who also will deliver a keynote address at IRCE. "We know who the customer is, his color preferences, his sizes and what his friends like." Gilt also knows its customers shop on the go—purchases made on mobile devices account for 25% of revenue—and Maybank will describe Gilt's array of mobile sites and apps.

While many retailer speakers will address their mobile initiatives throughout the conference, mobile commerce will be the focus of a full-day workshop Friday, June 8. Office supplies chain Staples Inc.'s Brian Tilzer will keynote the workshop, explaining what this early m-commerce entrant has learned and where it's going next. Moosejaw Mountaineering CEO Eoin Comerford will describe how that chain's mobile strategy led it to rethink the design of its e-commerce site.

Other sessions will dig deeply into mobile technology, including the emerging programming language HTML5 that promises to enable m-commerce sites to take on many of the appealing features of mobile apps. Tom Kraus, vice president of content and commerce at e-retailer ShopNBC.com, will discuss how the retailer uses HTML5 and its role in connecting with consumers using PCs, smartphones and tablets. "People will learn about some of our hard-won lessons," Kraus says, "and some things to think about in a digital world in which it is hard to have it all."

Focus on Facebook

Retailers also will report on how they're leveraging the explosive growth of online social networks. Leigh Rawdon, CEO of apparel manufacturer and web retailer Tea Collection, will describe how her initial Facebook campaign blew away sales records and nearly overwhelmed her e-commerce site, and how she's since woven Facebook and other social-sharing tools, including Google +1, into TeaCollection.com.

Advertising on Facebook is another fast-evolving arena as the social network keeps refining its ad options. Bryan Wolf, chief financial officer at clothing e-retailer Bonobos, will explain why the ads that work on Google don't necessarily work on Facebook, and how e-retailers can craft an effective social marketing strategy.

Can shipping be free?

Another hot topic will be how to balance consumers' preference for free shipping with the reality that retailers must pay to get goods delivered. Bulbs.com CEO Mike Connors will report on the full year of testing the e-retailer carried out to arrive at a free shipping threshold that drives enough incremental sales to cover the cost of not charging customers for shipping.

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