July 3, 2013, 11:24 AM

IRCE 2013 Special Report: Boundaries blurred

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Easy-to-use survey tools help breach the barrier between retailers and consumers, a barrier already crumbling under the blows of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a host of emerging social networks. Several fledgling e-retailers explained at IRCE how social networks have helped them reach consumers quickly and inexpensively, and how those efforts drive sales.

Among them was Alex Zhardanovsky, who co-founded PetFlow.com in July 2010. By 2012, the retailer was able to book $28 million in sales; he expects to reach $50 million this year. The secret? Using Facebook to put ads in front of his target consumer: an affluent woman over 40 who shops online. Once he started showing the right Facebook users cute pictures of dogs and cats, with links back to the PetFlow Facebook page, the e-retailer's Facebook following grew from 10,000 to 200,000 in two months, and now numbers 850,000.

When Warby Parker, an online retailer of designer eyewear that launched in 2010, gets tough customer service questions, its staffers answer them by creating videos, then post links to the videos on Twitter. On average those videos are viewed 60 times, Dave Gilboa, the retailer's co-founder and co-CEO, reported at an IRCE session. But sometimes they can get many more.

He described how a consumer named Kevin Wang tweeted about being infatuated with a Warby Parker customer service agent he talked to who happened to have the same birthday as he did, but whose name he did not know. When the retailer's staff spotted the tweet, the agent created a video for her "birthday twin" that Twitter users passed around to over 50,000 consumers. "That's the best example of how powerful Twitter can be as a customer service channel," Gilboa said.

The social network Pinterest, which lets consumers display—or "pin"—images they like from around the web, put BourbonAndBoots.com on the map, said founder Matt Price at IRCE's Social Commerce Workshop. A Johnny Cash necklace the retailer pinned on the social network in July 2012, less than a year after launching, was re-pinned by 500,000 consumers. "This product changed our business because it became so viral," Price said.

Tumblr, another up-and-coming social network, has had a similar impact on Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, a growing web and store retailer that started with a single shop in Columbus, Ohio. Luscious images of freshly made Jeni's ice cream have attracted 125,000 Tumblr followers, community manager Ryan Morgan said at IRCE. A recent series of images on ice cream sundaes nearly tripled sales year over year, Morgan said.

All these changes, and the blurring of traditional boundaries, make it almost impossible for retailers to keep up to date solely with technology upgrades. That's why retailer C. Wonder relies heavily on staff training. "We've decided to not wait until our systems and processes and people are ready," Bahamonde said in her presentation. "Nothing can be more powerful than inculcating this omnichannel approach into every level of the organization and every employee."

It may well be that the ultimate computer network, the Internet, is forcing retailers to rely more heavily on human beings. After all, has any software application ever made a video for its birthday twin?



IRCE sticks with Chicago

Six of the nine editions of the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition have taken place in Chicago since the event launched in 2005. And the Windy City will be the site of the next seven.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced last month an agreement with IRCE owner George Little Management to keep the show at Chicago's McCormick Place convention center through 2020. "The fact that the largest e-commerce show in the world is locating here through 2020 is a direct testament to the city's leadership in the field," Emanuel said.

"IRCE has thrived every year it has taken place in Chicago, and we are thrilled to call this our home through the end of the decade," said Craig Dooley, a GLM senior vice president and director of the IR Events Group. Vertical Web Media LLC, which publishes Internet Retailer magazine and founded IRCE, sold IRCE to GLM last year, but will continue to develop the conference agendas under a long-term agreement.

The 2013 edition of IRCE was the biggest yet, with more than 9,700 attendees, an increase of more than 12% from 2012. There were also 588 exhibitors this year, up from 564 last year.

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