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E-commerce convention is right at home in Boston

By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / September 12, 2011

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The Boston area, home to a number of online retail businesses, will host the nation’s e-commerce industry this week at a convention that is being held here for the first time in at least 10 years.

The digital division of the National Retail Federation, the world’s largest retail industry group, today will open the Shop.org Annual Summit and Expo at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. The three-day convention is expected to attract more than 3,000 people.

The local e-commerce industry is significant enough to bring the event to the city, said James Keller, chief marketing officer at Boston-based ShoeBuy.com, a 12-year-old e-retailer that says it is the “world’s largest site for shoes.’’

“The Boston area has more e-commerce than people think,’’ Keller said, adding that “Staples.com is one of the largest e-commerce retailers in the world.’’

The area is also home to such online retailers and marketers as CSN Stores, BuyWithMe, Rue La La, Vistaprint, and TripAdvisor, he added.

Keynote speakers include inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil; Google vice president of commerce Stephanie Tilenius; and Ben Fischman, chairman and chief executive of Boston’s Rue La La, an e-retailer of upscale apparel that specializes in so-called flash sales.

More than 200 companies will be on the convention floor, selling products, technologies, and services designed to improve the online retailing experience. Among them: Searchandise Commerce Inc., a Beverly company that describes itself as a “Google for retail,’’ helping companies improve product placement on retail websites.

Searchandise’s chief executive, John Federman, said the biggest question this year is “the role of mobile, and the ability to target mobile customers.’’

That’s going to be a hot topic at the convention, said Chris Davey, senior vice president at SapientNitro, a marketing and technology services company that is a division of Boston-based Sapient Corp. “Consumer-based technologies like smartphones are driving what is happening in retail,’’ he said, “and retailers are having to react to that.’’

Also on the agenda: the rise of flash sales, limited-time online offers, and “daily deal’’ sites as the online discounter Groupon, said Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge who will emcee some of the keynote sessions.

And social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter will be under examination, said W. Sean Ford, chief operating officer at Zmags Inc., a mobile merchandising company. The question: how to make money from social media.

“We’ve been giving a free pass for too long to social commerce, as something that you have to do, but you don’t how to monetize,’’ he said. “Now people want to know how you can quantify what you’re getting out it. “

Kiva Systems Inc., a North Reading company that makes mobile robots that automate order fulfillment for retailers like Toys “R’’ Us and Staples, will have the largest booth. It will feature a dozen orange robots and a few dozen shelves of inventory in an ongoing demonstration of how the robots bring inventory from the deep recesses of warehouses to human pickers.

Mitch Rosenberg, vice president of marketing at Kiva, said the company is hoping its products will synch up well with a theme he has seen at previous Summit shows: how to make sure there is the right inventory to meet peaks of online demand.

“Traditional retailers have years of experience to help them plan for the holiday season,’’ he said. “But the growth rate on the e-commerce side is so huge that it’s difficult to make an accurate prediction.’’

Kiva is hoping to capitalize on this uncertainty by making its inventory-fulfilling robots available for rent. “We’re hoping that this year the holiday elves will be orange Kiva robots,’’ he said.

At the same time e-commerce companies are attending the Shop.org summit, digital marketers will be at FutureM, a conference organized by the industry group Massachusetts Innovation & Technology Exchange (MITX) and described as “an intellectual marketing mash-up.’’

Now in its second year, Future M stretches over five days, beginning today, and includes events, discussions, and parties throughout Greater Boston. One of its media sponsors is Boston.com, a Boston Globe website. More than 1,000 people are expected to attend.

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.