Conference Puts E-Commerce Optimism in Perspective

There was a bit of the old flash and dazzle in this year’s eTail 2003 East conference in Boston and a healthy dose of optimism all around. After three long years of subdued events and lower turnouts, the robust, upbeat crowd seemed to sense things were heading in the right direction again.

From the dais, speakers tossed around the word “profitability” almost as an afterthought, something that would happen in the natural course of running a solid e-business. And on the floor, those staffing vendor booths said the questions were more pointed this year, the conversations more likely to lead to closed deals and new sales.

But this is a different flavor of optimism, one salted with a dose of hard reality.

Just Another Channel

While pure plays like eBay and Google still get star billing, the presence of Target, Lands’ End and Nike served as a reminder that e-commerce is just another channel, a new way of doing the oldest thing in the world: selling stuff.

Romantic notions of rapid rises to fame are gone. Even the CEOs of pure-play niche companies like eBags’ John Nordmark were sounding downright level-headed. Nordmark even seemed a bit embarrassed when he admitted that his company is aiming for 100 percent growth in the coming year. Growth is just so 1999.

There were still dreamers in the crowd, the CEOs of niche startups. But when they spoke, their questions were about conversion rates and pay-per-click effectiveness, about doing more with less. Not that the old way of doing things was completely forgotten. EBags’ Nordmark recalled spending millions on costly full-page ads in women’s magazines, ads that “are one of the reasons we’re still here today.”

Number Crunchers

The most popular vendors were those hawking Web analytics and Web performance management tools, providing evidence that e-commerce has gotten past the fluff and is down to the nitty gritty — the type of hard-and-fast number crunching designed to give CFOs, boards of directors and investors confidence in a burgeoning business plan.

Can it be long before the stars of the Internet world are not visionary CEOs but statisticians and accountants? “There’s a level of sophistication that’s taken a while to develop,” said Kristi Knight, a spokesperson for Web analytics firm Omniture. “At first people just want to know how many hits their page gets. Now they want to really understand what people are doing online.”

New World Order

The show also showed how the range of issues facing e-commerce has narrowed. There were one or two fulfillment companies on hand, but tools for measuring Web performance and customer behavior dominated, as did various ways to get search engine placement and to figure out if that placement is worth what you’re paying for it.

Hardly heard were phrases like Web design, banner ads, venture funding and media blitz. Remember when every startup was “pre-IPO”? This time, the words “going public” were met with painful grimaces.

One conference-goer said the difference from past years was palpable. “People are getting back to business,” he said.

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