A Peek Into the Rapidly Evolving E-Commerce Space at Shoptalk 2019

* This article was originally posted on *

Q1 is full of trade shows. Over the last few years, Shoptalk has emerged as the premiere, can’t-miss event for everyone in the e-commerce space.

The content is always out-of-this-world good. The type of speakers they secure is amazing. We’re talking CEOs from major players like Target, Nordstrom, and Anyone who is anyone in the world of e-commerce—from business owners to service providers—is at this show, which draws nearly 10,000 attendees.

Much like I observed at CES this year, there is a real sense of maturity becoming evident in the e-commerce space. In the past at shows like this, there were a lot more brands asking where to get started. This year, what I saw were brands focusing on how to get to the next level and vendors that were eager to show them.

All of your major, marquee players in the realm of shipping/fulfillment (Pitney Bowes, Ingram Micro, etc.) as well as e-commerce platforms (Shopify Plus, Magento, Big Commerce etc.) were there. But what you didn’t seem to see much of were the Tier 2 providers in those categories. The vendors appear to have been distilled into the best of the best, and the riff-raff has been weeded out.

Experiential Awareness

There was also a much more significant presence this year from vendors that specialize in personalized and high-touch ecommerce experiences. One brand in particular was doing some really great things with custom branded experiences for shipping, including things like chrome bubble mailers. From custom boxes and packaging down to the wrap that goes inside the box, they can help communicate your brand story.

Overall, it seems like the industry is at a point where people have figured out all the basics—website, e-commerce platform, taxes—and now it’s really becoming fun. It’s more about personalization and the experience itself, and there are some great companies standing at the ready to help businesses tailor their UX.

Narvar, a tracking consolidator, is a great example in my opinion. If you shop on Under Armour’s website, for instance, when you get your tracking, it doesn’t come from UPS or Under Armour itself. Rather, you’re directed to UA’s Narvar site.

Once there, you’ll get a detailed, impeccably laid-out view of the status of your shipment, as well other elements such as a selection of products related to those you just purchased (which probably does wonders for their upselling and repeat purchases). It’s a highly personalized and targeted page that allows UA to showcase their brand at another step of the buyer journey.

Retailers and service providers are transforming the brand experience that you used to get inside a retail store, bringing it into the e-commerce world. Entire businesses have sprung up that are focused on personalizing that brand experience online and arming the e-commerce retailers with the tools they need to connect with their customers.

More and more, that connection is not happening face-to-face, through sales channels like retail stores. The industry has changed.

Direct-to-consumer requires a strategy. It requires a brand presence. It requires a harmonious integration of all these levers and data points.

It means that every time you interact with a customer—whether on your website or mobile app, or in the tracking number and follow up emails you send them, or with the box they receive and the way they unwrap it—every instance is an opportunity for a brand to get their message out to the customers.

At Shoptalk, those vendors were busiest. The companies who provide case studies and real-life examples of how their products and services have given brands that boost were the ones getting all the attention.

The Great Divide

At this point in the evolution of the e-commerce industry, we’re starting to see a stark line drawn between the haves and the have nots. Some online retailers just get it: They understand the work they need to put in and what they need to invest—not just monetarily, but in time, effort, and thought—to be successful.

The companies excelling are those thinking about what it’s like for their customer at every step of the process, from the moment they decide what they need to the moment they’re holding that product in their hands. More and more in my own shopping, I’m seeing the boxes I receive have a lot more elements in them than just the product I ordered.

I recently received some free samples from a supplement company along with my order. You could tell that these samples were chosen based on what I had ordered. There was also an insert on how to stack multiple supplements effectively.

It was clear to me that someone in that company put real thought into the packing of that box. They considered what questions I would have and what next steps I would need to take. We’re seeing the entire e-commerce provider ecosystem moving into this area.

There are still plenty of people out there who think they can just slap their products up on a website and sell their wares online, and they’re getting crushed. They don’t have the framework in place to compete, and it shows. They’re relying on the big .com marketplaces to do all the work for them, and that’s not going to last forever.

Amazon just announced this past week that they’re getting rid of many of their first-party providers and shifting them to third-party. (Check back soon for a blog with more thoughts on this move.) This is exactly why companies have got to step up their game.

You can’t rely on a bigger company or marketplace to do your e-commerce heavy lifting for you. Their big team and all their bells and whistles may not always be there for you, so you need to diversify your sales channels.

As this continues to shift, I think we’ll start to see the separation more visibly between those who are putting the work in and those who are not. And shows like Shoptalk will lead the way, showcasing vendors who can help brands do that work and close that gap.

Where’s the Meat?

IRCE (Internet Retailer Conference + Exhibition) used to be the holy grail of retail trade shows, but the last few years, it has really fallen off. Personally, I stopped going to IRCE because I found that every year I went, it was the same story and the same people. I felt like I was better qualified to get up and speak than those who were presenting content, but even that seemed like a waste of time.

What set Shoptalk apart and made it the place to be these last few years were the high-quality speakers and the amazing content. You were always learning something.

In the few sessions I went to this year, however, I learned virtually nothing. Shoptalk hasn’t quite slipped to where IRCE is, but this year was really disappointing to me on the content front, and I heard that echoed by nearly everyone I spoke to.

In the program for the conference, there were at two pages of inserts detailing all the speaker modifications for content sessions. There are bound to be some changes at any conference, but I’ve never seen an event have that many changes to their speaker lineup after the programs were printed.

I’m not 100% sure what it means to have the appearance of a significant amount of changes just weeks before the event. Perhaps people backed out last-minute, or the content team didn’t get firm commitments up-front. Or maybe the industry has simply outpaced the content, and this is a one-time blip that the team at Shoptalk is already way ahead of.

I know that Shoptalk puts a lot of effort into producing this event, and they’ve always set an incredibly high bar. The quality of the sponsors and external events definitely delivered (our team loved the happy hour and the music performances), but the content was sadly lacking. I’ll definitely be back in 2020 because, ultimately, the value is still there, but I do hope they refocus and work to bring the level of content back up to what it’s been in the past.


This article first appeared on on March 21, 2019

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