Think of a Silverman dinner as an advanced course on retail, complete with fancy appetizers, impressive entrees, paired wine, a few laughs, some civil disagreements and a better than fair chance of ending the night with a full stomach and a full brain.

At the center of the events is Scott Silverman, something of a retail whisperer, who hosts as many as three dozen dinners a year, on average, that draw generally no more than a dozen e-commerce executives from some of the country’s best-known retail companies.

Scott Silverman

It’s an industry that moves really fast. It’s easy to make mistakes,” Silverman says of retail, which he’s been watching since his decade as executive director of Shop.org, starting in the late 1990s. Shop.org is the digital division of the National Retail Federation (NRF). “My experience at Shop.org was a foundation for the value of people getting together and also seeing that in this industry, in particular, there is a higher level of willingness to speak and to share with each other — with the knowledge that people are going to share back with you.”

Also at the table is a retail technology vendor, usually a software-as-a-service provider, that pays for dinner and Silverman’s networking services and joins the conversation. But these dinners are not sales sessions. They maintain a salon vibe —  a room of experts learning from each other.

Howard Blumenthal, who oversees e-commerce growth and omnichannel experience at Advance Auto Parts, says the Silverman dinners are a chance to supplement the knowledge that a retailer can pick up at the massive national trade shows aimed at the industry — but on a much smaller, more intimate scale.

“These are local essentially,” says Blumenthal, who works in San Francisco and attended a March dinner at the Absinthe Brasserie & Bar in that city. “It’s a low-key event that allows people who live near each other to actually mingle and talk about topics with their peers.”

Indeed, Silverman’s dinner circuit recently has included San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Columbus, Seattle and Dallas. The get-togethers have given him a unique vantage point for understanding the challenges that internet retailers face and the opportunities they are chasing.

Silverman leads the conversation, starting out with an ice-breaker and then moving into a few key topics that retailers are focused on. And the retailers talk, generally warming up to each other fairly quickly and showing a willingness to dispense wisdom even among those who might be competing for consumer’s finite retail dollars.

So, what are the big topics?

“It’s evolved over time as our industry faces new and different challenges,” Silverman says of the dinner conversation. “Today, interest in mobile is very high as the percentage of customers that are interacting with retailers on a mobile device keeps increasing.”

Which Silverman says is ratcheting up the pressure on retailers, because it’s expensive to build a mobile experience, while also building a desktop experience. Omnichannel, or linking together different shopping and sales channels, is a big issue for store-based retailers, he says.

“One topic that has an impact on everybody is customer acquisition —  and also competing with Amazon.”

Talk about an appetite suppressant. Silverman says that Amazon could indeed pose an existential threat, depending on the retailer.

“It’s a really big question,” Silverman says regarding survival in the age of Amazon. “They have so much scale.”

He said there are brands that sell directly — Lululemon and Under Armour, for example. They will keep selling to consumers, whether Amazon also sells their products or not, Silverman says.

“The retailers that are selling the same products as Amazon is where it’s hardest,” he says. “And there you’re seeing them find ways to differentiate themselves by using their deep product expertise.”

Think of Williams-Sonoma, he says, and the sort of expertise a store salesperson can bring to the subject of cookware or kitchen gadgets. At that point, it comes down to how loyal a customer is once he or she has taken advantage of the in-store knowledge.

“OK, they get all their information from the specialist and then they go, ‘Well, here is Amazon. And they can get it to me in one day and they’re not going to charge me for shipping. And their prices are about the same. It’s so easy. So how much market share can you prevent from going to Amazon?”

Gourmet tables

Silverman is passionate about retail. It’s not one thing, but it starts with the people.

“I always found it to be an industry where there were more, kind of, down-to-earth people,” he says.

And then there is the strategic thinking required in a world where a retailer might have millions of customers and one of his or her goals is to develop a relationship with those customers. And there is the growing role of the technology that’s involved and the way it’s evolved.

Yes, Silverman has had his chance to put his mark on the industry that he loves. When he was executive director of Shop.org in 2005, he and Ellen Davis, a public relations person for the National Retail Federation, came up with the term “Cyber Monday.”

The label was the online corollary to “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving and the biggest brick-and-mortar shopping day of the year. Cyber Monday falls on the Monday after Thanksgiving and ranks among the biggest holiday shopping days online.

“This is one of my favorite things to talk about,” Silverman says.

He explained that Shop.org did a lot of research about holiday spending, both to provide insights to members and to get the attention of media outlets, which love producing stories about holiday shopping trends.

“We had been doing this study for a number of years leading up to the holiday season,” he says, “and we saw data showing a big bump in online shopping the Monday after Thanksgiving. At the time, one of the big reasons for it was that the high-speed internet connections were at people’s offices and not necessarily in their homes.”  

The phrase led to an online deals site, that led to a revenue stream, but not one that the Shop.org team wanted to keep for themselves. And so, they established a scholarship meant to honor a late colleague while providing financial help for students studying in fields associated with digital retail.

The idea for Silverman dinners also grew out of ideas building on ideas. The gatherings, which Silverman calls “E-commerce Leaders Dinners,” were inspired by another NRF colleague, Cathy Hotka, who brings together retail CIOs for similar dinners, but with different topics and retail titles.

At Shop.org, Silverman managed dinners for its members that invited 40 to 50 e-commerce professionals. The events involved four or five tables of eight, or so, each — each table engaged in its own conversation. Silverman wondered how it would work if he better curated the crowd, going for a smaller group of general manager and executive-level professionals, all sitting at one table.

The dinners were born.

“I think Scott really relishes that role in trying to bring conversations together and connect people,” Blumenthal says.

And why not? Good food. Lively conversation. And the chance to help people in a dynamic industry help each other succeed.

Photo of Scott Silverman by BloomReach, restaurant by PortoBay Hotels & Resorts published under Creative Commons License.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.