March, 13, 2011; Boston, MA
Blueport Commerce executives recently participated in a panel presentation titled “E-Commerce 2.0: The Next Wave” at Lazard Capital Markets Annual Technology & Media Conference. Held in Boston, on March 14 and 15. This conference brought together industry executives in a fireside chat format, with presentations from more than 50 leading technology, media and Internet companies.
Drawing on his deep expertise developing online strategies for leading big-ticket retailers, President and Chief Executive Officer Carl Prindle, discussed the next e-commerce frontier and what brands need to do to capitalize on its growth. Below are some key excerpts from his presentation:
Colin Sebastian – Lazard Capital Markets: Carl, please take a minute to introduce Blueport.
Blueport is the only managed e-commerce provider focused on localized, big ticket commerce.
Think of us as GSI Commerce (GSIC) for players that need to involve local stores in their online efforts and whose products don’t fit in a UPS box.
Our clients range from a $250M furniture chain in Chicago, a $1B appliance, electronics and furniture superstore chain in Canada, a $4B flooring retailer with 1,100 independent dealers, to Sears (SHLD).
We provide each with a managed e-commerce solution – a localized, cross-channel commerce platform and the managed services to make their unique businesses work online.
CS: The pace of innovation in e-commerce is accelerating. This is also driving another step forward in the shift of commerce and advertising from offline to online channels. Given this overall trend, in your own businesses and markets, can you specify what are the 2 or 3 most important drivers of growth today?
Well, this session is definitely aptly named. We’re at an inflection point – the start of a second wave of e-commerce.
The first wave of ecommerce was characterized by the Amazon model – online shopping for relatively simple, understood products shipped via UPS.
There’s very little local store involvement in this model. Customers buy things on their lunch break, and a guy in a brown shirt delivers it.
A massive eco-system has grown supporting this model in last 15 years – advertising, merchandising, technology and so on. And, it works great – we see 45% penetration in some categories like PCs.
But, the e-com 1.0 model is bounded in a couple of ways. One boundary is size – this model probably only works for less than half of all retail, less if you include services.
The other boundary is profitability – e-com 1.0 was first because it’s easier. Because it’s easy, it’s prone to commoditization, price pressure…it’s an efficient market, with all of the margin pressure that it entails.
What we’re seeing now is a second wave that pushes past these boundaries, engages the rest of the retail economy, and can be more profitable.
What’s driving it? Consumers looking to apply the habits learned via the Amazon model to new areas. Companies that that have for a long time been on the sidelines because they DIDN’T fit that model – are now heading to the internet to meet them.
The energy, the growth, is in the technology connecting the two – whether it is mobile, social, coupon sites, etc. – new technologies are giving new players access to new customers.
And Blueport is providing the multi-channel solutions for these new players to do something meaningful with that traffic.
CS: You mention mobile. How big a factor is mobile becoming, for example as a percentage of your own transactions or volume, or as a lead generation tool?
Mobile is a huge factor, but different depending on whether you are an e-com 1 or e-com 2 player.
For e-com 1 players, mobile’s increased convenience is arguably driving new volume. It’s also increasing price transparency, which accelerates the commoditization of some of these categories.
For an e-com 2 player, it’s a huge factor in a different way: local. Where e-com 1 was national, e-com 2 is local – local businesses, local services, huge retail chains were their offering is fundamentally local.
Take appliances as an example – I don’t think we’ll see refrigerators transacted via phone any time soon, but mobile can drive customers to local stores, critical for retailers trying to gain a slice of precious weekend “in-store” shopping minutes.
The game changer that starts to blend the two is the tablet…increased use of big screen browsing plus local is intriguing.
CS: There is a fairly rapid increase in merchant and enterprise use of Facebook, not only as a tool to reach out and communicate with consumers, but also to drive transactions. Similar to the mobile question, how quickly is social becoming a meaningful part of real lead generation and driving online sales?
Well, Facebook, at its most powerful, is a personal network of friends. A company interrupting that conversation can be pretty cringe worthy. A company trying to be your friend doesn’t really work.
At the same time, along with apps, Facebook has become the “other” Internet, and retailers have to be there.
We’ve seen it work in three ways:
- Brand Building: in high engagement categories, brands can interact with their customers on topics they are passionate about.
- Deals: Facebook can replace email as a way to distribute deals.
- As a Platform: we look at Facebook as an emerging platform/operating system that can host online stores with built in traffic.
It’s a phenomenal time to be where we are. As we’ve talked about, there’s a seismic change from e-com 1 to e-com 2, and we’re in the middle of it.
You asked about the multi-channel environment. The term multi-channel has been around a while, but its meaning is changing.
In e-com 1, multichannel meant exactly/only that – more than one channel. Retailers in categories that work well via direct ship built drop ship e-com systems, often entirely separate from their store business.
In e-com 2 today, we see true multi-channel, or cross-channel commerce (or just “commerce”). Retailers are using the internet to drive their core business, not build a separate one.
Companies that were on the sidelines are now investing in solutions that reflect their businesses. They look to online to drive customers to local stores, sell their local inventory and services, reflect their local pricing and local deals – to drive their core business.
A client, CarpetOne, is one of my favorite examples of this. They are a $4B flooring retailer in 1,100 local markets. They didn’t want to be Lumber Liquidators and drop-ship cheap boxes of hardwood. They wanted to drive their core business – local installation of quality flooring. We enable that – their site reflects each market’s local product, pricing – pictures of owner’s dog, whatever makes that local market work. It’s a seamless online experience that connects online to local store.
Sears (SHLD) – is a company taking another innovative approach. They are reentering the furniture category via a unique cross-channel strategy. They’re putting small footprint galleries in their stores, that drives traffic to a dedicated furniture website that we run for them, http://sears.furniture.com. The site taps into local inventory, and Sears customers can get a sofa delivered tomorrow for $79. Blueport powers the whole thing.
So, we’re seeing massive change in these categories, the evolution of true cross-channel categories, and it has accelerated dramatically in last 18 month.
CS: What are the key attributes that a bricks-and-mortar retailer or supplier of goods look for in an e-commerce vendor?
When looking at vendors, look at what experience they have in YOUR vertical. Are you looking for an e-com 1 solution, or e-com 2? Do you want a direct ship, separate enterprise, or do you want your local markets involved?
Make sure the vendor has experience in your markets and your vision of what you want ecommerce to do for your core business.
You can make some disastrous mistakes trying to sell appliances or furniture like you do shoes & apparel.
CS: What would it cost a retailer or brand to build and maintain a state of the art e-commerce site from scratch, versus using a service provider such as Blueport?
Here again, it depends on what you’re selling.
If you’re looking for an e-com 1 solution – you can put up a Yahoo! store up for next to nothing. My 10 year old has one.
For e-com 2 – it’s more complex, requiring far more integration with your local stores’ existing systems and operations. There’s no Yahoo! store or ready-made platform for that (but Blueport is close).
If you try to build an e-com 2 solution yourself, you have to look at three costs: the cost to build it, the cost to run it, and the opportunity cost of screwing it up.
We have a current client who first tried to build it themselves. They spent $3M, and it never got off the ground. It was two years of lost opportunity.
With Blueport, they pay a monthly platform fee and a revenue share. We’ve done major redesigns of their sites three times in the last two years, and added countless new features. And they pay only their share of the overall platform and hosting costs.
We also help run the business for them from a marketing, merchandising and services perspective. This is paid through the revenue share, so they get a turnkey, expert staff on a pay for performance basis.
This story has repeated itself a number of times – people trying it themselves, then deciding to work with us. At the other end of our contracts, we’ve never lost a renewal, so people see the value of what we do (and would prefer not to have to do it themselves).
Part of the story is that the categories we’re in are a good fit for outsourcing. They are challenging, don’t match the internal expertise of the players in them, and ultimately, they’re not like PC’s or software, where online is 45%-65% or more of volume. Stores are still key, so our clients get to focus on that part of their business, while we port and drive that business online.
CS: Can you talk about the competitive nature of your business, who do you see as the most successful competitors and what are trends in pricing for these e-commerce services?
Sure, we segment the market on two dimensions.
One dimension is e-com 1 versus e-com 2. Is the customer in a market that will be a simple drop ship model, or do they need a cross-channel solution involving local stores?
The other dimension is platform versus managed solution. Does the customer just want a technology solution, or are they looking for a partner to help them manage their online business?
On the e-com 1 side of the market, e-com 1 platforms are increasingly commoditized and under a lot of price pressure. It’s a pure customer acquisition game. Yahoo stores again.
For e-com 1 managed solutions, GSI Commerce (GSIC) is dominant with a huge lead in infrastructure and increasingly in services, where they’ve made some great strategic acquisitions. While Amazon (AMZN) keeps looking at this space, GSI is the clear leader.
On the e-com 2 side of the market, e-com 2 platforms are mainly custom builds from players like IBM, and ATG (ORCL). These are big dollar projects with two commas in the total cost, and they leave the customer to manage the solution - there’s no marketing, management, etc. And, they don’t have a ton of experience in these e-com 2 categories.
For e-com 2 managed solutions, where Blueport plays, we’ve yet to run up against a true competitor.
I guess we really have two competitors: a customer doing nothing, which is less and less of a factor, and a customer trying to do it themselves, which with our case studies, is an easier and easier argument to overcome. In a lot of cases, people are coming to us now who tried themselves, and now want out.
We expect competition to evolve, but we have a technology platform and service staff with a lot of specific functionality and experience in these markets, which makes it easy to talk to prospective clients, most of whom have been on the sidelines waiting for a provider that understands their business.
CS: That’s time – thanks to everyone for their participation.
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