Perspectives on the E-Commerce Summit - an Event Recap

Posted by Kate Jurras on Wed, Feb 1, 2012

Guest post by Mina Hsiang. Mina is an associate with General Catalyst Partners in Cambridge and a current member of the MITX Future Leaders Group.

shopping cart resized 600As I sat in the sold-out MITX e-commerce event, I couldn't help thinking to myself "This is about everything but the commerce!" No one was discussing transactions. No one was talking about how to manage payment systems.  People talked about social media, e-mail, reviews, comparisons, a volunteer marketing army!  So I looked up the word commerce, and this is the definition I found:

Noun:    1.  The activity of buying and selling, esp. on a large scale.
2.  Social dealings between people.
I immediately saw where my expectations had been wrong. In fact, I now think e-commerce is finally coming of age; it is truly becoming commerce instead of just shopping.  

Niraj Shah of Wayfair has been in this field as long as it's existed, and he talked about the changes of the last few years - and how the criteria and features required just to play the game are constantly increasing: free shipping, faster delivery, more information, reviews and recommendations, planning tools… customers are demanding more.

A completely packed breakout session about the Staples mobile app and the strategy they took to build it felt more like an anthropology class than anything else. Prat Vemana and Dusan Koljensic walked through a sophisticated analysis of consumer behavior throughout all realms of life, all the possible touch points and times when there is an intent to purchase, and commentary on providing value even when there is nothing to buy.  Their advice: Be there. Provide value. Then maybe you'll have the chance to convert. Oh, and keep track - analytics are your incredibly important secret weapon.

Hubspot's John Marcus emphasized that you have to blog. He talked about auto parts and software-as-a-service. No matter what you're selling, if you can engage your customer in a dialog or provide them with valuable information, you become a trusted authority. Then maybe they will part with dollars, to your benefit.

Gary Lombardo from Demandware discussed multi-channel solutions, but only using them when they solve a real problem. He talked about the inherently social nature of shopping, and how different channels allow that to work better, and build trust with the customer, often through better interactivity or convenience.  

With every presentation focusing on the social aspects of commerce, and providing value outside of "having the stuff to buy," I couldn't help but think about the cyclical nature of so many human interactions as they come online.

Once upon a time, we lived our whole lives in a small town, and each store was a destination for all kinds of transactions. You went to get news, to meet people with similar interests, to deliberate products, to learn new farming techniques. Commerce was integrated into life and included providing many kinds of diversified value for consumers - if people hung around enough, and liked and trusted you, they would buy things from you when they needed things.

At some point, stores became destinations for purchases only, sales people became less helpful or knowledgeable, sales per square foot and inventory turns became critical measures of success. Retailers were forced in large part to compete primarily on price. Early e-commerce was often a further extension of that trend, allowing for lower cost and more choice.

Being online just changed a few of the parameters around the transaction of buying and selling. But as we come to live more and more of our lives online, the rest of commerce is catching up. The social and community aspects are becoming woven back throughout our requirements and expectations.  

My takeaway from the conference was very optimistic. For everyone who is not going to become the Walmart of online (ahem, Jeff) there are now tons of options and tools for you to engage your customers, build a relationship, and help make their lives easier and more reliant on you. As a local VC I'm pleased - many of these tools are from Boston. And as a consumer, I'm excited for companies to keep making my life more convenient and streamlined.

Were you at the E-Commerce Summit? Leave us a comment and tell us what your takeaway was!