Past, Present, and Future: What I’m Looking Forward to at eTail West

I'm not just excited about attending eTail West this year because of the idyllic and warm setting of Palm Desert (I’m typing this as I look out on another snow storm - as they say in Star Wars, my tauntaun will probably freeze before the first marker); I'm also really excited to watch retailers connect and share stories and advice. 
eTail West traces its beginnings back to 1999, about the same time I started working in digital marketing. For many, eCommerce has always represented one of the most exciting and pure uses of the internet. The "how" of selling online was much more interesting than the "what", as the ability to collect, process, and leverage data to provide superior customer service gets us closer to the ideal of personalized, seamless shopping at high scale. It's the transformation of business by computing taken to its logical end.
In that spirit, I’d like to go through a few areas that I am excited to learn more about at eTail West, followed by an inside look at my purchases from a much younger version of Amazon a decade and a half ago. Here we go!
1. "Big Data" vs "Getting Things Done with Data"
As it relates to the concept of "big data", eCommerce is unique since it's been swimming in data from the early days of Web log analysis. In a business where a 1% uplift in sales can translate into millions, retailers are keenly interested in how customers view, shop, compare, and buy online. In that vein, retailers are used to working with a lot of data, joining and organizing it logically and extracting insights that can be leveraged to move the needle. While it sounds like effective use of ‘big data’, I bet if you queried eTail West attendees on what area needs the biggest improvement, you would see "big data strategy" consistently near the top of the lists. 
The reason it's such a hot topic is that the "add as we go" methodology has provided results, but with a degree of uncertainty in terms of approach – after all, big data is still a relatively new concept. However, while there are good elements and bad elements to big data, the elements that aren’t so great have persisted out of habit or organizational momentum. The art is to figure out the best way to advance, while building and enhancing on what you have -- subjects that will be addressed by a number of panels and keynotes at eTail West. 
2. Content is king and so are customers
One of the most powerful aspects of buying online is the ability to get feedback on the reality of a product vs. its marketing. Amazon was the early pioneer of user reviews, but this concept has been replicated almost everywhere. The success of product reviews on the buying process has caused retailers to take a hard look at content strategy, as well as how that plays into the buying experience. 
Ultimately, this is directly related to looking at customers as customers, not "segments" or points in a funnel. Honest reviews and compelling content helps establish a relationship instead of just “pitching” to visitors, which makes me really excited about the content panel discussion, “Making an eCommerce Experience a Content Experience.” One of the participants, Dollar Shave Club, has one of the best stories around launching a business off ridiculously compelling content and I’m looking forward to learning more about their content strategy. 
3. New channels count, but traditional channels still rule 
Search and online advertising are still major focuses of eTail this year, and for good reason. Say what you will about social, mobile, and new forms of interactive entertainment, but search and display advertising still make a ton of money for retailers. However, both are in a time of transition.
On the display side, there is much research around ‘viewability’ and the increasing number of fraudulent ad views. At the same time, the agency model is evolving as retailers are put under more and more pressure to show results, in addition to transparency of spend. On the search side, it’s continually getting harder to differentiate yourself and extract more lift from search. All that said, there is a very interesting keynote, “Migrating To An Omnichannel Philosophy: Assessing Technology, Resources And Strategies,” which will evaluate these themes, so I won’t be missing that! 
Bonus: A walk down eCommerce lane 
On the subject of innovation, it's amazing to stop and look back on how quickly things have evolved from the late nineties to today. Back then, I had to convince my friends and family that buying things online wasn't "weird," and that it gave me access to products I didn't even know existed. 
While I’m looking forward to a ton of sessions at eTail West, it does make me nostalgic for the past. Just for fun, I looked back on some of my early Amazon purchases. Check them out below:
Video Essentials - Not only is this still a great resource for tuning a home theatre, but it’s interesting as to what passed for a home theatre back in the day. 27” Samsung TV with component inputs! Was it a flat screen CRT? You betcha -- my mind was blown by how sharp the 480p picture was from DVDs. 
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - First off, yes, this is a cassette -- back when I had a car with a tape deck. I remember the box for this being absolutely massive and there was a total of 15 tapes. However, this cassette made my crazy one hour commute each way bearable. Better yet, I can distinctly remember leaving for the airport two hours early one day so I could finish the last cassette in the parking lot before my trip. 
It also holds the distinction of being the first item I ever sold on Amazon. Even back then, I realized I would never listen to it again, and if I did, I probably wouldn’t have access to a cassette deck. I was right on both counts.
Nokia 8260 Phone + AT&T Plan - Yes, I bought a cell phone on the Internet in 2001! Pioneer, I know. Caller I.D. AND three-way conference calling included? I felt like an absolute baller with my Nokia 8260 in my pocket -- I could even play a game of snake when I got bored. However, note the distinct lack of any sort of a data plan. I’m sure the monthly bill was still higher than what I pay now.
Well, that was a fun trip down memory lane! I look forward to making some new memories in Palm Desert at eTail West this year -- who knows, in 15 years I’ll be explaining to my kids about the simpler times of eCommerce in 2016. They won’t be paying attention, and will likely roll their eyes at a lot of it (“Dad why didn’t you just print all this stuff out? You actually had to wait for it to ship to you in cardboard boxes?”), but in the end, we’ll know just how exciting this time was for eCommerce and beyond.   
See you there!
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By David 'DJ' Johnson
About the Author:

David 'DJ' Johnson is the Vice President, Account Development at Stratigent.

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