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Getting Your Bottom Line to the Finish Line in the Longest Year Ever

At the time, I think all of us viewed our mode of attendance at the 18th Annual (But-Very-First-Online) Gift and Home Trade Association (GHTA) Conference in November as exactly what we had come to expect from 2020. After all, our nothing-but-virtual presence in 2020 had long had some of us guessing at “Which screen is the real me?” and the rest of us hiding in our jammies behind the video-off version of the witness protection plan.

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2021 Ecommerce Trends to Watch

But the program was incisive and insightful – full of facts and figures, personal and personality-infused perspectives and, most importantly, enlightened encouragement. Every speaker brought a hopeful eye to the future or an innovation that would help get us there. And now that we actually have the future on our calendar, our look at 2020 from the rear-view mirror also offers a bit of a roadmap for 2021 and its wholesale marketplace trends.

Obviously, our favorite presentation was Eric Dean with Juniper by IMC™’s story of the unfolding Juniper adventure, and there will be more on that coming soon. But from the opening bell – or in this case, the inaugural “Are we live yet?” – we assessed what we had survived, how we did it, and where in the GHTA to go from there.

Why Are Retailers Riding Down the Path to Radical Transformation?

Michael Lasser, Managing Director and a Senior Research Analyst with UBS as well as the first speaker, brought us to the down and dirty straight away: “What I feel confident about is that there’s going to be some pretty radical transformation in the retail sector.” He then led us through an abundance of data – for example, showing how the U.S. consumer is now spending their money on goods at the expense of services.

That turnabout of the long trend in the opposite direction bodes well for many of us in the marketplace…with the exception of brick-and-mortar retailers, whose model seems increasingly limited if left to that singularity. 2020’s data has only reinforced that “just to be able to cover their costs, the average retail store has to grow to be able to stay in business.”

Lasser did offer some mitigation as well as an avenue forward by saying, “At the same time, we will see a significant increase in ecommerce presentation.”

Mara Devitt and Neil Stein, both Partners with McMillan DooLittle, used their presentation about winning strategies for 2021 to follow up in a similar vein. First came Mara’s injunction for 2021, saying, “We are certainly telling our retailers and Brands to plan for headwinds and plan as much as possible for uncertainty.” With our Juniper foot planted firmly in Florida, we understood that caution quite clearly -- even if discussing headwinds of a different sort than Cat 1.

But Neil Stein elaborated further, counseling that “if, in fact, retail is changing more in the next 5 years than it has in the past 50, it’s going to define the winners and the losers of retail in a very different way.” In other words, put your reframing glasses on – it’s time to look at things with eyes wide open to possibility.

The Keys to Carry Us Through

As Ting Xu, Owner of Evergreen Enterprises, exhorted in the ensuing segment, “Nimbleness and adaptability are going to be the key to carry us through…being creative with the solutions channel, [creative with] the business process, and creative with content.”

Another participant in this moderated panel that focused on addressing tactics for surviving COVID-19 and even thriving as a business was Jimmy Fang, Managing Partner of C&F Enterprises. Fang addressed pivotal moments of his business growth. In words that rested on past successes as much as they project the future, Fang said, “I would say almost all of our instances [of pivotal moments] could usually be pointed towards hires or people who have come on board through acquisitions.”

With Fang’s view of people at the forefront, creativity and perspective are what will get us through even those years where the word unprecedented is unnervingly ubiquitous. But creativity and perspective are features as varied as they are personal. Erica Kirkland of Giftbeat Magazine moderated a lively discussion with Christie Elam-Manry of Elam’s Hallmark and Deborah Breither of Elly’s Gifts that highlighted the broad disparity of approach in actual leopard-print-booties-on-the-ground Retailer Strategies.

While Owner Elam-Manry espouses a buying strategy that is very traditional and tactile-centered, North Carolina merchant Breither characterized her 2020 online buying experience as “right in my comfort zone.” Having weathered the 2008-09 recession with a shift to ecommerce buying, Breither has enthusiastically continued in that direction, citing the ongoing improvement in websites that make her job so much easier. “It’s very easy to buy. All the products are available, they update them continually with new products, and they’re just very user friendly.”

 

2021 Ecommerce Brings Balance…and Juniper…to Our Future.

It should be encouraging, then, that ecommerce as the third leg of the proverbially balanced stool was ever-present at this year’s conference, both its current practice as well as future application. Presentations featured companies discussing their ecommerce efforts in different facets of the industry.

Capping off this line-up was Eric Dean, President of Juniper by IMC, bringing the story of their fully encompassing ecommerce innovation. “Juniper is a seamless extension and expansion of IMC’s industry-leading physical markets,” Dean explained. And, as if adding emphatic punctuation to the presentation by Dean, the final discussion wrapped up this gift of an expansive omnichannel future with a great big bow.

Moderated by Andy Bjork of Ivystone and featuring Robin Kert of Southeast Marketing, Adam Schrier of Creative Co-Op, and Julia Higgins of Corkcicle, this B2B Digital Marketplace Roundtable traced the evolving route of road and trade show sales models to its current expanded horizon. Commenting first, Schrier gave the entire B2B commerce community a bear hug of inclusivity. “What we do know is that our best customers shop with us in multiple, multiple ways…they’re utilizing all the tools that we’re giving them.”

Higgins agreed about the need for tools – for everyone in the process.

“We realize that our reps need not just access to information, but they also need reporting tools. They need to be able to create very specific assortments for each of their retailers.” And Kert spoke of how the need defined her budgeting process, acknowledging that “there are only two things we’re spending money on: one is people, the other is technology. Then, the other two things are technology and people.” Emphasis duly noted!

What the panel seems to have agreed on, even after arriving at it from different perspectives and application, is that wholesale Commerce – with a capital C – is most successful when balanced.

“This Is Coming Our Way.”

In a clear snapshot of how Schrier and the others see the future of B2B commerce, he said, “We have three really beautiful, amazing showrooms…we spent an enormous amount of money and investment. We kind of think about our digital platform -- our B2B website -- as another giant showroom, and we have to give it the same tender loving care that we give our showrooms.”

“If we don’t do it, we’re not going to be everywhere we need to be for our retailers and our reps.”

John Toler, Chair of the 2020 GHTA Conference, closed the conference by stringing the pearls of digital marketplace solutions onto a necklace for retailers to wear with elan into the promise of 2021’s broadened and healthier retail base. As he did so, he also added a succinct closure: “This is coming our way. This is unavoidable.”

And that’s a pretty emphatic statement to wrap up the most uncertain of years while pointing us towards success in 2021.