Outlook for Online Retailers: Sunny, With a Chance of Rain

On the surface, a walk through the show floor at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition in Boston, which ran June 15-18, would make even the dourest economist smile.

On the surface, a walk through the show floor at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition in Boston, which ran June 15-18, would make even the dourest economist smile.

With a reported 5,000 attendees and more than 350 exhibitors, the show was the first one I attended this year that felt like a “real” trade show. I saw lots of online and offline retailers and catalogers walking around, discussing Web design, social networking, site navigation, the mobile Web and other online-related matters. I also saw many packed sessions and many smiling, busy vendors. Was this 2009 or 1999?

But beneath all of this good feeling was the fact that the gloomy economy was still top-of-mind for most attendees. Many said that while they were there learning about the latest trends, they were still struggling, hoping to break even at year’s end. Others were more hopeful, stating that while their sales were down, their profits were holding steady and they were positive and upbeat about the year ahead.

During a presentation on June 16, Gian Fulgoni, chairman and co-founder of comScore, added a bit to the doom and gloom. He noted that while online retail sales were up 2 percent between both January 2009 and January 2008 and February 2009 and February 2008, they were down 1 percent in March, flat in April and down 4 percent in May. Overall numbers are flat.

But Fulgoni had some good news. E-commerce, for example, clearly continues to outperform brick-and-mortar stores in disposable income-driven product categories, such as sporting goods and fitness merchandise; books and magazines; and music, movies and videos.

What’s more, he said, 74 percent of consumers say they’re likely to shop online before making an offline purchase.

So the weather forecast is mixed. But there’s no denying the real energy on the trade show floor. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.