We sat down with Don Davis, Editor At Large at e-commerce news & research firm Internet Retailer. He is a New York native and Yale graduate.
Matter (M): Don, how long have you been a journalist? Where’d you get your start?
Don Davis (DD): I began my first reporting job in June 1970, right after graduating from college. The job was at the Springfield Union, a morning daily in Springfield, Mass. I wrote obits, chased cop cars and fire engines, and covered whatever happened on weekends when more senior reporters were off. I had a blast.
M: Favorite food?
DD: Just about anything on a French bistro menu.
M: Favorite movie?
M: Spirit animal?
DD: Sorry. I’m too focused on the real world to even make up an answer.
M: What’s your favorite brand and why?
DD: I buy most of my clothes from L.L. Bean or Lands’ End. I think fashion is a rip-off and prefer comfortable, durable clothes that never go out of style (at least in my mind.) I do occasionally splurge on Tommy Bahama, which I find really comfortable.
M: What are you doing when you’re not editing copy, assigning stories and being hassled by PR folks?
DD: Playing tennis, listening to jazz, eating and drinking with friends and family, studying Chinese, traveling.
M: I joke about you being hassled by PR people (kind of). You’re a tough and well-respected, but yet very accessible editor. That is rare. What advice do you have for PR people and their clients? How do we break through all the news and get your attention?
DD: We’re very clear about what we want: We want to speak with retailers about their online operations and strategies. Give me that and you’ve got my attention. We also want insights from experts on stories we’re digging into. That’s a bit trickier, because every one of your clients thinks they’re an expert on all sorts of topics. Some of them are. Tell me why the person you’re pitching really does have something to offer.
M: What’s the biggest mistake that PR people and their clients make when pitching the media?
DD: They don’t spend a few minutes reading our stories. Anyone who did would have a pretty good idea of what we cover and what we’re looking for. With just a little bit of study of our website a PR person with a client in our industry should be able to craft a pitch that would get our attention.
M: How is social media changing the way your team finds and reports stories?
DD: I’m a social media skeptic. I’ve tried to use Twitter and occasionally other social media to find stories or to connect with sources. For the most part, it’s been a waste of time. Others on our staff insist it’s worth following social media, but I think they get a modest return for the time they spend.
M: You’ve been at IR for as long as I can remember. What continues to surprise you about the ecommerce industry?
DD: That people keep coming out of nowhere with great ideas that big corporations might have thought of, but didn’t. Think Warby Parker, Blue Apron, Rent the Runway.
M: Aside from IRCE, of course, what industry events get you most excited? What topics or tracks catch your attention?
DD: I’m not seeing all that much new at shows covering online retailing, which may reflect that the industry is getting more mature and there’s less that’s fresh and amazing. On the other hand, business-to-business e-commerce is just getting going in a big way. We’ve hosted two seminars this year where there was really rich discussion among the manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors who came. And next September we’re partnering with the leading expert in B2B e-commerce, Andy Hoar, on a new show called B2B Next. I’m very excited about that.
M: What’s your opinion on all this “store of the future” tech and the closures of major chain’s brick and mortar locations? Is this Amazon doom and gloom chatter for real, or do we need to be thinking about retail differently? In thinking about all of this, what are your predictions for next year?
DD: “Your margin is my opportunity.” That short quote from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos encapsulates where we are in retailing today. Retailers for years marked up merchandise by healthy amounts because they could. In the internet—and Amazon—age that’s no longer possible for most retailers. When it comes to commodity items, big companies like Wal-Mart, Amazon and China’s Alibaba will dominate. No “store of the future” is going to entice consumers to spend a lot more on everyday items like paper towels and toothpaste.
Where other retailers have a chance is in creating unique products or providing the kind of in-depth information consumers won’t find on the websites or in the stores of mass merchants. Apple, of course, is the prime example of a company that provides products so good consumers will pay more for them, and that can keep innovating so that it holds that enviable spot for years. But there are plenty of other retailers that have developed their own brands of products, whether that’s Bonobos in men’s pants or startup M.Gemi that sells handmade Italian shoes at half the price of high-end retailers.
Trusted sources of information will also survive. If you’re looking for information about car stereos you’re going to find expert advice at Crutchfield that you’re not likely to find elsewhere, and toy buyers will get more guidance at Fat Brain Toys’ website than they’re likely to find in a big-box store.
Apart from the mass-merchant giants, the retailers that will succeed will focus on a niche and provide great products and service in that arena.
As for next year, I predict we’ll see consumers buying more through voice-activated devices, retailers taking advantage of new technology from Apple and Google to provide really compelling augmented reality apps, and artificial intelligence beginning to live up to its hype by enabling retailers to provide really good automated service while also cutting costs.