Insider's Guide to IRCE: The collective wisdom of e-retailing

Content and community are key success factors for headliners at IRCE 2014, the show's 10th edition.

Mary Wagner

It took a long ride down a couple of escalators to a meeting floor buried deep in a Chicago hotel to reach Internet Retailer's first Conference & Exhibition in 2005. About 1,100 e-commerce professionals made the trip. With e-commerce still recovering from the dot-com bubble burst of the early 2000s, we were thrilled to see every conference-goer who stepped through the doors.

The early conferences bubbled up some e-commerce axioms that still hold true today. A ForeSee survey reported at IRCE 2005 revealed that consumers "often shop on a variety of web sites and other channels before making a purchase." Imagine. And IRCE 2006 keynoter Thomas McInerney, then executive vice president and chief financial officer of IAC/InterActiveCorp., cited the promise of new online merchandising and marketing techniques like personalization. "Connecting one-to-one with customers is something we think about every day," he told attendees.

Early conference speakers referenced buried seeds that grew in ways that even most of the forward-looking attendees didn't envision a decade ago. At IRCE 2007, Netflix Inc. CEO Reed Hastings outlined how the Internet would upend DVD rentals and explained that Netflix and other retailers would need to evolve to prosper in an Internet-driven world. For Netflix that would eventually mean expanding from DVD rentals to streaming to entering the entertainment business itself. In fact, last year Netflix earned nine Emmy Award nominations for its original, online-only television series, "House of Cards."

At IRCE as well, things have changed beyond anything we could have forecast 10 years ago. We anticipate 10,000 attendees this year, a nearly tenfold increase from our first conference, against the backdrop of big changes in the industry. E-commerce sales soared to $262.5 billion in 2013, up more than 150% from the $109.4 billion figure that wowed us back in 2005. Technology advances undreamed of 10 years ago are now standard, dramatically altering how and when consumers, retailers and brands talk to, and about, each other, and how, when and where consumers make purchases.

As e-commerce has moved out of retail's ground floor to become the place merchants want to be, so has the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition. To accommodate the growth of what has become the world's largest e-commerce show, we've exchanged our early hotel meeting floor digs for the huge, light-filled spaces of McCormick Place, right on Chicago's lakefront. And every year, we challenge ourselves to bring attendees the best experience and the best speaker program possible.

This is evident in the keynote, featured and special guest speakers who will grace the stage at Internet Retailer's 10th anniversary Conference & Exhibition in June. In different ways, each embodies the conference theme, "E-commerce everywhere, bonding with shoppers through content and community." It is a theme that celebrates 10 years of changes, connections and creations that have led the industry to where it is today.

Platform powerhouse

As the CEO and president of eBay Inc., one of the Internet's biggest and most enduring success stories, John Donahoe was a top choice of Internet Retailer's editors to keynote day one of the main conference. Collectively across eBay's key divisions, including its namesake marketplace and PayPal, the company last year enabled $212 billion worth of sales to take place. Its global reach and leadership in mobile initiatives are outstanding examples of the key trends driving e-commerce. Donahoe, at eBay's helm since 2008 after joining the company as its head of marketplaces three years earlier, has been pivotal in that growth.

EBay's continual investments in, and acquisitions of, multiple companies show that it is a company focused on growth. For example, in recent months eBay led a $133 million funding round for Snapdeal, an Indian online marketplace, acquired payments processor Braintree for $800 million and bought 3-D computer graphics company PhiSix, saying the acquisition will let merchants virtually demonstrate how clothing for sale fits a shopper's body.

Drawing from web-only merchants, retail chains, branded manufacturers, catalogers, financial services firms, event ticket sites, airlines and hotel chains, IRCE's audience is diverse, but, like eBay, it is united at the conference in the goal of looking for new ways to grow their businesses. With eBay aligned with that same objective, Donahoe's keynote address, "Connected Commerce: The New Opportunity for Retailers in an Evolving Retail Environment," will provide a comprehensive look at where retailers large and small are today and at the developments ahead at eBay.

Same strategy, new delivery

The title of Wayfair LLC CEO Niraj Shah's day two keynote address, "Connecting With Consumers by Giving Them What They Want," explains the retailer's winning ways in a nutshell. But Wayfair's story also is a powerful demonstration of how success can be found by changing to stay in step with an evolving industry. With experience spanning technology and entrepreneurship in previous leadership roles in mobile services, global technology consulting and information technology services firms, Shah has spearheaded a company strategy of bonding with shoppers though content in ambitious new ways.

Shah, who co-founded the company as CSN Stores LLC in 2002, understood early on the importance of giving consumers what they want. He initially delivered on that strategy by offering products on hundreds of niche e-commerce sites with product-focused names including Strollers.com and Luggage.com. But as executives came to understand that customers wanted to purchase more from a one-stop shopping experience, the Wayfair team in 2011 consolidated the brands under the Wayfair name—and then some. Consolidating the sites also improved the repeat customer rate, improved its placement in search results and eventually helped lower the cost of acquiring new customers.

Wayfair has also expanded its home furnishings portfolio with on-trend furniture brands DwellStudio and AllModern.com and upscale flash-sale site Joss & Main, and rolled out deeper content through an in-house editorial team and content-sharing and cross-sell arrangements with print magazines Coastal Living, This Old House and Sunset. New shopping tools, including its Inspiration Gallery showrooms designed by professionals, provide a rich store of 2,500 home interior room photos that customers can click on to shop. "We had figured out how to bring millions of items for the home together under one roof, but what we hadn't done was start with how [consumers] get inspiration and follow through to purchase," Shah says. "We need to give consumers what they care about."

With talk of a possible IPO in its future, Wayfair reported more than $1 billion in sales last year as the county's largest online retailer for "all things home," as its tagline says.

"Wayfair is heading into 2014 with tremendous momentum and growth as more and more shoppers opt for one of our exceptional e-commerce shopping experiences," he says.

Community's poster child

Few web sites better illustrate the power of community—and of enterprises not possible before the Internet—than Wikipedia.org. Its origins more than a decade ago were in an online peer-review process originally intended to boost the quality of articles in the web-based online encyclopedia Nupedia so that the entries were comparable to those found in printed encyclopedias. But as any person with a question and access to the Internet knows, Wikipedia and its CEO and founder, IRCE 2014 special guest speaker Jimmy Wales, have done far more than that.

Not only has Wikipedia rendered printed encyclopedias obsolete with its ability to provide easily updated factual knowledge online, but the success of Wikipedia, now the fifth-most-visited web site in the world, has helped popularize a trend in web development that aims to facilitate creativity, collaboration and sharing among users.

Wikipedia's developments move in step with advances in the retailing industry, which also has been radically transformed by the Internet. As the active participation of Wikipedia's users has changed the traditional model of presenting reference information, so has the rise of social media sharing given consumers powerful new influence in how brands and products are presented online.

"People are coming together in unprecedented ways to produce information for each other that surpasses the trustworthiness of traditional sources of information—including advertising and product descriptions," Wales says. "This is changing the face of retail." His presentation, "The Wikipedia Story: The Power of Community in the Online Era—and What it Means for Retailers," will serve to inspire online entrepreneurs to stay nimble, anticipate change, and embrace it.

Experts share product stories

Some moviemakers argue that humans are hard-wired to be drawn into a filmed narrative. Not only does that work for Hollywood, but it also can work for retail, as the experience of Joyus.com, a 3-year-old specialty e-retailer backed by nearly $20 million in venture funding, demonstrates. Joyus.com founder and chairman Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, IRCE's day two featured speaker, has put video front and center as the primary selling point on the fashion, beauty and health products site, as she'll discuss in "How the Video Experience is Transforming the Way People Shop."

The e-retailer produces up to 50 two-minute videos per week. Nearly all of the work is done by in-house staff, most of whom came from the TV industry, and shot either on the streets of the company's San Francisco home base or at fashion-focused events such as the Academy Awards. The result is a similar quality to what consumers would see on TV.

Combine Joyus's highly polished video production values with the rest of its e-commerce strategy—a membership model, a curated assortment presented in the videos by a roster of expert hosts that shoppers come to know, like and trust—and it works. Members who view a video are nearly five times more likely to convert than those who don't view videos, the company says.

A bet on video is a bold move for a company of Joyus's size, but Singh Cassidy brings impressive credentials to bear in her decision to take the company in that direction. Prior to founding Joyus in 2011, she spent 18 years as an executive at global and early-stage companies including Google Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Yodlee Inc., and News Corp. Most recently, she served as CEO and chairman at online search, shop and style community Polyvore and as CEO-in-residence with Internet venture capital firm Accel Partners, which has invested in online leaders such as Facebook Inc., Groupon Inc. and Etsy Inc. She is on the boards of TripAdvisor LLC and J. Hilburn, and is a former board member of J. Crew Group Inc. and advisor to Twitter Inc. Her presentation will open many attendees' eyes to the fact that while challenging, video commerce—and in fact, any number of new e-commerce strategies that tighten bonds with customers—aren't the exclusive province of large retailers. It should also encourage retailers of all sizes to experiment and dream big.

Author Info
Mary Wagner is Internet Retailer's editorial director, conferences, and helps lead the selection and recruitment of speakers for IRCE. She has attended and covered all 10 IRCE annual events. Her favorite IRCE presentation? PetFlow.com founder Alex Zhardanovsky's featured address at IRCE 2013. "A classic e-commerce bootstrap success story. With cute pet pictures," Wagner says.

Session Highlights

Connected Commerce: The New Opportunity for Retailers in an Evolving Retail Environment / Wednesday, June 11, 8:30-9:00 a.m. / Speaker: John Donahoe, CEO and president, eBay Inc.
The Wikipedia Story: The Power of Community in the Online Era—and What it Means for Retailers / Wednesday, June 11, 9:00-9:30 a.m. / Speaker: Jimmy Wales, CEO and founder, Wikipedia
How the Video Experience is Transforming the Way People Shop / Thursday, June 12, 9:00-9:30 a.m. / Speaker: Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, chairman and founder, Joyus
Connecting With Consumers by Giving Them What They Want / Thursday, June 12, 8:30-9:00 a.m. / Speaker: Niraj Shah, CEO, Wayfair LLC