eTail West   //   February 23, 2024

How retail conferences like eTail have evolved over the last 25 years

This story is part of Glossy and Modern Retail’s series breaking down the big conversations at eTail West.

Back in 1999, Amazon was just beginning to move beyond books to sell CDs, toys and electronics. Brick-and-mortar stores like Walmart and Gap were slowly building up their presences on “the net.” And around 100 professionals gathered in a California conference room for the first eTail, a chance to talk about the burgeoning industry of online sales that would eventually upend all of commerce. 

The eTail conference, organized by Worldwide Business Research, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The network has expanded to host multiple events across the world that bring in thousands of attendees.

This year’s eTail West kicks off with a pre-summit day on Monday, with roughly 2,500 retail professionals expected to attend the main event running Tuesday through Wednesday. Hot topics for programming this year include direct-to-consumer business models, prioritizing DEI efforts and — no surprise — tactical uses for artificial intelligence. And while executives onstage will speak to ubiquitous challenges like Gen Z marketing and creating the best tech stack, many people come for the schmoozing and networking at cocktail parties, wine tastings and table talks. Vendors, meanwhile, increasingly set up splashy stalls and pass out swag in the halls in the hopes of inking much-needed deals.

The size and scope of eTail has advanced alongside the industry. In the fall of 1999, the U.S. Census Bureau conducted its first-ever e-commerce data collection effort, finding that online sales accounted for .63% of total fourth quarter retail sales at nearly $5.2 billion. By comparison, Amazon alone reaped a record-breaking $170 billion of sales in the fourth quarter of 2023. And while eTail once held its 100-person events in conference rooms, the network now brings in thousands of attendees that take over hotels and conference centers, with sector-specific conferences held for travel and food and beverage.

Kristin Schoenstein, co-director at eTail West, said that the goal of the conference has remained the same throughout the years: to give attendees practical insights they can bring back to the office, and foster meaningful connections among people dealing with the same challenges.

“I’ve seen it over the years with DSW and Best Buy, or Lego and Disney,” Schoenstein said. “They’re coming together, and they’re collaborating, and that’s the coolest thing. And then sometimes you hear the case study the following year. We see that a lot.”

Evolving alongside the industry

Few full agendas from the early days of eTail exist. But a handful of advertisements show many topics that are still relevant for the industry today, like email marketing, reducing abandonment or search optimization. One ad from 2003 shows the event theme was “Mastering the Art and Science of Multi-Channel Retailing,” a topic that shows up in many places on this year’s agenda. 

Still, there are some dated references. Sponsor logos from legacy brands carried digital-specific names, like “” or “Neiman Marcus online.” As the industry took, companies were often careful to delineate between their online and brick and mortar presence, careful not to dilute their brick-and-mortar presence with a less optimal online experience. But that strategy fell out of fashion as online shopping became more mainstream, and bifurcating operations proved to be a flop for brands like JC Penney that couldn’t keep up their e-commerce operations up to speed.

There’s also a history of the industry reflected in the communication around the event. The February 2009 event, held in Phoenix, called it “retail’s pivotal year,” signaling hopes that the Great Recession would begin to wane. Elizabeth Robillard, program director for eTail Palm Springs, said the Covid-19 lockdown era saw the team turn the event digital — and still manage to secure multimillion dollar sponsorships.

“Our sponsorship team had never done that. And they just had to figure out how are we going to sell a virtual shop, and like, how are we going to get speakers?” she said. “It was a ride.”

Some years wind up being flashier than others. Last year, steady late winter rainfall in the desert dampened the ability for outdoor meet-ups and recreation. One year, a vendor brought a Hummer, “like an actual Hummer,” to giveaway to an attendee, Schoenstein said. They parked it on the outdoor pavilion at the JW Marriott, and held a rock-paper-scissors competition to see would win. 

Another year, a speaker disguised himself as a frail elderly man as he walked up on stage, confusing the attendees until they realized it was a gimmick about first impressions and marketing. “There was no LinkedIn,” to know who was going to talk, Schoenstein said.

Conferences = party time

Beyond the programming, the networking is a major part of the conference’s set up — and that looks different in 2024 compared to 1999, too. Companies exist with the pure purpose of sending out emails of attendees’ emails, flooding inboxes with pitches and invitations. On site, business cards have been replaced by LinkedIn and QR codes, said Karina Kogan, the chief marketing and commercial officer for fitness company Pvolve.

“It’s so easy to stay connected with people and leverage those connections,” Kogan said.

Kogan said she attends events like eTail to meet like-minded professionals going through the same thing. “I’m always looking to swap war stories and hear about what’s working, and help each other problem solve,” she said.

As eTail has grown, it’s becoming increasingly popular with vendors seeking to drive new business. PolicyMap, a GIS software that can provide various demographic information, is just starting to expand its breadth of retail clients. As a result, Ross Flaharty, a business development executive with the company, is heading to his first eTail from Los Angeles to connect with brands that could benefit from place-based demographic information.

“Conferences are a big part of our business development strategy,” he said.

While it was once a niche event, eTail is now a part of the retail and digital conference circuit. The National Retail Foundation has been holding events since its inception in 1911, and its Big Show now kicks off the year in January in New York City. Shoptalk launched in 2015 as an industrywide event, while SXSW has grown its commerce component alongside its entertainment and media core. But eTail West is unique for being held at a luxury resort near Palm Springs, California, as opposed to a big city like New York, Vegas or Austin.

Robillard said part of what sets eTail apart is the focus on connecting attendees with one another, rather than high-profile entertainment or paid speakers. Panelists are usually executives or professionals from brands as opposed to celebrities, and the conference is set up to have plenty of time and space for one-off meetings, as well as focused “tracks” that help keep disciplines together, like supply chain or marketing.

“You can definitely get a lot out of our speakers, but there’s a lot of value in the audience as well,” Robillard said. “it’s an incredible audience of people who are all going through similar challenges, and may have just done a little something that that you hadn’t thought of. So I think connecting and networking is a huge part of the event. And I think we try to create as many moments as possible for people to do that organically.”