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Shop.org annual conference: a review

Last week I attended Shop.org's annual conference, this year held in Seattle, WA. It was a tough slog for the east coasters, especially those who had to connect through Chicago thanks to the air traffic control fire, but despite the challenges, the energy and optimism were both high. If you have any doubts, just look to the poor Know How people who were staffed as bathroom attendants, handing out hand sanitiser and breath mints so that even in the bathrooms you could not escape the relentless marketing machine.

Business must be good, or the VC money must be flowing fast and free, and either way, that's good news for eCommerce, for now.

I had three big takeaways from the conference, which I'll characterise as two steps forward and one step back.

Step forward: The convergence between content and commerce.

In 2009 I wrote a paper on the 5Cs. RSR has been using that framework in various ways ever since, so in some ways we've grown comfortable with the notion that people understand the concept and are merrily working their way towards 5C convergence: the alignment of content, community, commerce, context, and customer insights across channels.

Not so! We try not to get too far ahead of the market, but this appears to be an area where our vision was a bit too fast for retailers' capabilities. Combining content and commerce is the first step on the road to the 5Cs. Retailers and brands have been working hard at telling brand stories and becoming legitimate content marketers. But historically those efforts have lived on a different platform from their eCommerce engine – typically a more blogging or content management kind of platform.

Bringing all that content together with commerce is not easy, which is why, five years after RSR first explored the idea, we're still talking about making the easiest one happen: the convergence of content and commerce. What do I mean by that? I mean promoting lifestyle content in the context of a product or category page, and/or promoting products related to the content of a lifestyle blog post on that post's page. Sounds easier than it is, apparently.

The good news is, I saw evidence of this happening more and more, and it was definitely one of the hot topics of discussion at the show. So even though this step was a longer time coming than I thought it would be, at least it is being taken.

Step forward: B2B that looks a lot like B2C.

The other big hot topic at the show was the convergence of B2B and B2C. I know, I know. B2B is so unsexy. But it's starting to look a lot more like its B2C sisters. There are a couple of reasons for this – one, more and more brands are selling direct. In fact, in some of RSR's other research this year we found a clear shift in manufacturers' perspectives. They are no longer trying to hide or minimise the fact that they want to sell direct from their retailer partners. They are just going for it. Manufacturers selling direct is going to be a fact of life for the retail industry, if it's not already.

But when some of these brands open direct selling sites, thinking they are going to reach consumers, they discover a sector of under-served small businesses, who are too small to appeal to reseller or distributor channels, but big enough that their average order value gets manufacturers' attention. For example, a knife manufacturer who discovered that all those $5,000 baskets were independent restaurants that wanted to use their steak knives as part of the place setting – customers they'd never served before.

That gets these brands thinking they might need a more B2B experience – and relationship – with these companies than they've had previously. In some ways, this is back to the glory-days promise of supplier networks: shift your high cost/low volume customers to the cheapest way of doing business with you (the internet). But it's more like discovering customers you never knew you had by offering something they couldn't otherwise access.

The second reason why B2B is hot is because of simple human behaviour. Corporate buyers are consumers too. And they’ve been well-trained by Amazon and other eCommerce consumer experiences as to what to expect out of a shopping experience.

They're very interested in getting that same kind of experience as part of their purchasing role in companies – corporate buyers want ratings and reviews too!

But brands don't want to have separate platforms to support the two functions, and here's where things get interesting, with more and more eCommerce platform vendors proposing one platform capable of both B2B and B2C – same catalogue, same back-end access, just different rules and pricing (and workflow) applied to different customers. A very interesting step forward.

Step back: A front end to your front end's back end.

Yeah, you read that right. This is about putting a new type of access over a retail user's access to the back-end of their commerce engine. The objective is to hide the complexity of the eCommerce platform with more user-friendly tools that give business users (rather than relying on IT) more flexibility in how they design and configure pages on their eCommerce site.

I met two or three vendors at the show who are supplying a front end to retailers' eCommerce platforms, and while the work they are doing is great and they have happy clients and are doing really great things (most especially in the realm of convergence between content and commerce), the fact that this is now a technology category of sorts scares me. One of the historical advantages of eCommerce was that it was not encumbered by a retailer's past technology mistakes. It's a fresh start, a fresh architecture, and it's much faster and more flexible than, say, ERP software.

Except, if you need a software solution to isolate your eCommerce platform from the very "business" users who use it, then something is wrong. I'm worried that as an industry we're recreating all of the complexity and rigidity and bad technology decisions we already perpetrated against the store side of the business.

Is that a full step back? Probably not. But to me, it looks like the foot is off the ground and heading in that direction. And don't forget: The consumer? She's already five steps ahead.

This article originally appeared on the RSR Research website. It is reproduced with the organisation's permission.