April 29, 2011, 11:19 AM

IRCE Preview: Hot Spot

Big companies are snapping up e-commerce firms. Three key figures in major web deals this year will address a record crowd next month at IRCE 2011.

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It's a sure sign of the web's growing role in retailing that major companies are buying e-commerce technology companies and web retailers at an ever-faster pace. Right in the middle of this e-retail acquisition spree are two of the keynote speakers at next month's Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition, taking place in San Diego June 14-17.

In one of those blockbuster deals, drugstore chain Walgreen Co. announced in March plans to acquire online-only retailer Drugstore.com, the 46th-largest North American web retailer by sales, according to the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide. Drugstore.com will become part of Walgreen's e-commerce operation, run by IRCE 2011 keynote speaker Sona Chawla, president of e-commerce, who will explain the chain's web and mobile strategies.

"We want to make it easier for our customers to maintain, manage and improve their health and well-being," she says. "It ranges from something as simple as sending them a text when their prescription is ready to be refilled or is ready for pickup, to offering them a broad array of health and wellness products online, beyond what is offered in our physical stores, to letting them refill their prescriptions in under 30 seconds by using their smartphone camera."

In the other big e-commerce deal, also in March, eBay Inc. announced it will pay $2.4 billion to acquire most of the assets of GSI Commerce Inc., which provides e-commerce and marketing services to 180 online retailers. IRCE attendees will get a first-hand account of what that means June 15 from keynote speaker Christopher Payne, vice president and head of eBay North America.

Immediately following Payne, attendees also will hear from another central figure in a recent high-profile Internet deal: Arianna Huffington, who founded the blog Huffington Post in 2005 and built it into one of the web's major information sites, attracting 25 million unique visitors a month. AOL bought the Huffington Post in February for $315 million.

Online retailers can learn important lessons from Huffington, "who possesses under her signature coiffed hair a brilliant mind with a strategic vision for using the web to create a new information industry, one that just might totally replace the old one," says Jack Love, CEO of Vertical Web Media LLC, which puts on IRCE and publishes Internet Retailer.

Love says the 2011 edition of IRCE is shaping up to be the largest ever, with 7,200 attendees expected, which would represent 12% growth over the 6,432 who attended last year's event in Chicago, which set an attendance record for online retailing shows. This year's Exhibit Hall will feature 500 booths, a 20% increase over 417 last year, which also was a record.

"We're benefiting directly from the growth of the online retailing industry," Love says. "We're the show everyone has to attend to stay connected to all aspects of that industry."

'The race is on'

The theme of this year's show is "E-commerce Shifts Into Overdrive: The Race Is On," and over four days attendees will hear from 175 expert speakers who will address 100 conference sessions. They will speak on the most up-to-the-minute issues, such as what retailers need to know about the iPhone and Android mobile platforms, to such nuts-and-bolts topics as how to assess e-commerce platforms and "10 low-cost, little-noted payment fraud-fighting and cost-saving ideas."

Five full-day workshops will address the latest in e-commerce technology, advanced search engine marketing techniques, how to finance growth, social marketing and mobile commerce. There will be separate tracks aimed at smaller retailers, C-suite executives, marketers, merchandising specialists, technologists and operations and fulfillment personnel.

In a hotly contested race, which is what online retailing has become, competitors must continually consider fresh ideas. And there will be many first-hand accounts of such experiments at IRCE.

For instance, web-only jewelry retailer Ice.com will report on how it now studies the impact of marketing campaigns on each other, such as how online display ads on other web sites impact natural and paid search clicks. Ice.com has been able to measure the impact across campaigns with its Omniture analytics software and has adjusted its spending as a result, says Pinny Gniwisch, executive vice president of marketing, who will discuss the tactic at IRCE. "The lesson," he says, "is to reexamine everything and take nothing for granted."

Many online retailers are struggling to justify spending money on social media, uncertain whether they'll be able to measure any direct impact on sales. Faced with that conundrum in May 2009, web retailer Pegasus Lighting simply went forward with a social marketing campaign that includes blogs, Facebook and Twitter. A year later site visits were up 19% and orders were 29% higher, says Chris Johnson, vice president, who will speak at the Social Marketing Workshop on June 17.

Johnson concedes it's hard to prove a direct connection between the social marketing efforts and sales. "But I have to think there is something there, because Twitter and Facebook let us reach out to people who probably never heard of us before," he says.

Along with the rapid rise of social networks, one of the spectacular e-commerce developments of recent years has been the emergence of retail web sites that offer deep discounts on certain items for limited times, often requiring consumers to register to get the deals. Doug Mack, CEO of one such members-only, limited-time retailer, One Kings Lane, will explain to IRCE attendees how the e-retailer built its business, and what comes next.

What mobile shoppers want

When it comes to sophisticated mobile phones, there's no doubt what the future holds: more of them. But retailers have many questions about how to sell effectively to mobile shoppers. Web and catalog electronics retailer Crutchfield Corp. first studied customer web site traffic patterns before launching its mobile commerce site in December 2009, and continues to solicit customer feedback as it adds features, such as PayPal acceptance.

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