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[Editorial] Protected Spaces

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At Etail Towers we’ve seen a phenomenal growth in our activity through 2009 and now into 2010. From a lean organisation with only one full-time person, we now find ourselves – in addition to this Magazine – with an active Supplements programme, a new Editor in Germany, a new title (M-Retailing, to cover the role of mobile within multichannel retail), our JumpStart procurement programme, breakfast briefings and CEO Dinners and a planned launch in France… It’s a busy time but as we come into contact with evermore senior retailers there’s a new issue to navigate: how to make an appropriate ‘space’ for peer exchange and learning.

I recently invited a senior retailer to a roundtable and his response was that he never attended sponsored events since their purpose was to trap and sell ‘at’ him. I understand his view (having been a retailer I know the persistence of some folk attempting to liberate my cash for the latest must-have “functionality”). I met with a founder of an interesting and specialist software firm – let’s just call them “vendors” – and he bemoaned the fact that (despite sponsoring our conference, holding a PhD in the area of interest, being a regarded global expert) we would not allow him to speak since he was a ‘vendor’. I understood his position too. In January, I gave feedback to a presenter who – against our guidelines – had tended into ‘sales pitch’ territory… The feedback was unequivocal, savage and brand-damaging. She understood my position.

Our young industry is one of the most open that I have experienced and at IR we’ve been trying to create a ‘space’ for open exchange by peers.

To this end I co-founded, with my friend Joris Beckers of Fredhopper, the European eCommerce Forum, a private ‘thinktank’ on the art of selling online. We invite etailers who inspire us, some vendors whose expertise is unquestioned and external speakers to challenge us, and then throw everyone together under the Chatham House rule. We’re told that the absence of selling and the private nature of the exchange encourages openness and supports dialogue. Indeed, the few ‘vendors’ are so reticent that they hardly mention their companies!

At a think tank in Zurich last month I was harangued about these ‘private conferences’ being a form of market-distorting, share-price-manipulating, proto-communist evil that had no place in a world of free information and open markets. Partly stunned, it took me a good couple of Pains aux Raisins to remember why privacy is important. We seek privacy not to “be secret” but to have the luxury of being able to change our minds and form our thoughts without the external, public glare that focuses upon major retailers. Where every word is market-sensitive or can be quoted, how are we to change our minds? Develop thinking? Be challenged?

This challenge and thought-development were at the heart of the MSc in Internet Retailing that we launched a year ago, with Econsultancy and Manchester Metropolitan University. The student cohort – senior etailers from major brands – have mentioned not only the work-relevance of the course, but more importantly for them the space to be challenged, to learn and to develop their thinking.

Looping back, how can we make a similar space for our readers to meet and gain this stimulus and input?

I’m convinced that many vendors have wide experience, deep insight and a passion for our business. I want to include those voices. Equally, I share the loathing of sales-fluff, PR spam, vapid promises and FUD, even to the detriment of our income at times. To date I believe we’ve maintained a good balance, but we are not complacent.

We wish to offer both the open exploration of best and emerging practice and the protected spaces for learning and growth. We seek to bring expert voices to bear, for innovation and commercial success – whether retailer, vendor or analyst. We seek to advance the art and practice of selling in the digital age.

I would love to hear your thoughts on formats and approaches we can develop, as well as your blunt views on how well we live up to our aims. Please leave your comments below – I look forward to your thoughts, as well as to the coming year’s growth in this the most exciting area of retail.

This editorial appeared in the March 2010 edition of Internet Retailing Magazine.

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