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Q-and-A: Peter Cobb on the future of the digital retail industry

Peter Cobb is co-founder and senior vice president of eBags.com, the leading online retailer of luggage, handbags, backpacks and business cases. Peter has been responsible for marketing, merchandising, public relations and business development. Peter received the TGA Award in 2009 for outstanding achievement within the travel goods industry and was named 2003 Colorado Marketer of the Year by the American Marketing Association. He is vice chairman of Shop.org, the leading online retail trade association. He received his MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management and undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon.

Cyber Monday has been a busy sales day for eBags in past holiday seasons. Did you expect this year to be the same? Why do you think it’s been such a busy day for eBags? Has it been a predictor of overall holiday sales in past years?

It is interesting how Cyber Monday has evolved over the past six years. Cyber Monday last year was special for eBags.com as we set an all-time sales and traffic record, beating the previous high by 55% (which was Black Friday three days earlier). This year we are seeing “Christmas Creep” as retailers are not holding back for Black Friday but promoting “Why wait for Black Friday when you can get the deals now?”.

We do not think there will be the two strong days (Black Friday and Cyber Monday) but more of a Cyber Week as a kickoff to the holidays. This is great news as it gets shoppers in the holiday mood early and allows us to get an early gauge on the season while also being able to remarket to those that shopped early.

We’ve been hearing many perspectives this year on the shift to m-commerce. Have you seen more of your customers reaching eBags through their mobile devices? What are the mobile trends you’re seeing?

First, you need to define mobile because tablet shopping behavior is quite different than smartphone shopping behavior. We have built out our smartphone-enabled site over the past year and are proud of our site. That being said, smartphone visitors are 5.5% of our traffic yet only 1.7% of sales. Tablets on the other hand, are 6.4% of traffic and 6.5% of sales.

Interestingly, the tablet average basket size is 25% higher than smartphone basket, indicating that tablet shopping is a better experience and promotes multiple item purchases. But make no mistake, purchases via tablet and smartphone will only continue to grow over the next decade as more people use the devices and the technology continues to evolve.

EBags has always been out front on the technology that powers e-commerce. Now that consumers are using tablets for shopping and retailers are creating digital versions of print catalogs for the iPad and other tablets, has eBags been optimizing any online content for tablets?

We were very early in video, and one of things we made sure is that our videos could be viewed on iPads. We get a lot of kudos for being early to the game with this as video does such a nice job of bringing products to life.

In an interview last year, you talked how online retailers hadn’t come close to realizing the potential of social media. Have they come closer in the past 12 months? What’s changed since that interview, and what’s next when it comes to online retail and social media?

With Facebook at over 800 million users, retailers are salivating over how to monetize these active users. To date, very few online retailers have been able to move social beyond the brand loyalty phase, and it is rare to find a significant online retailer with sales through social over 1% of their total.

But, again, thinking about that 800 million users (which would be the population of the third largest country in the world), it is our job to figure out how to unlock the potential of social. We are doing some fun things on our Handbags.com site by inviting shoppers to sign in via their Facebook account, allowing us to utilize Facebook tools on Handbags.com (sharing, wishlists, inviting friends, likes, etc.). We are really excited about this facet of Facebook because it will make eBags.com and Handbags.com even more engaging for shoppers.

What is your sense of how 2011 has treated retailers and your outlook for the holiday season and the year ahead?

Year-to-date, eBags sales are up 25% so we feel fortunate that we are approaching the holiday in a position of strength. And like all good retailers, we have been doing a lot of A:B testing over the past six months making sure our site is optimized. We feel last holiday was a turning point as shoppers accelerated the migration from brick-and-mortar to online. With more people using tablets, smartphones, and continued site optimization, we expect online retail to steal even more market share this holiday.

We are so focused on this holiday it is difficult to predict 2012, especially with Europe, China, an election year, 9% unemployment — just for starters. That being said, we believe online retail is a superior customer experience, and with online less than 10% of total retail sales, there is still a lot of upside for growth.

Image courtesy of Peter Cobb

This question-and-answer session was produced as part of SmartBrief’s 2011 Best Of reports, which capture the year’s most important stories in each industry. Sign up now for Shop.org SmartBrief to get tomorrow’s report on the top must-read stories from the digital retail commerce industry.

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