Shopify Inc. doesn’t just want to be an e-commerce platform. It wants to be the future of retail entrepreneurship.
Its executives spent a two-day conference this week framing its widening suite of tools as key weapons in the battle against the spectre of a faceless, monolithic retail future dominated by giants such as Amazon.com Inc. and Walmart Inc.
On stage at the company’s annual Unite Conference for developers and partners in Toronto, Shopify executives toggled between new-service announcements and vaguely ominous warnings. “We need you all to bring your skills to the table … so the future of commerce is shared by the many,” chief operating officer Harley Finkelstein told the audience of more than 1,000.
The company’s revenue growth has been strong – it was up 68 per cent last quarter over the prior year – but analysts found its 2018 projections a little underwhelming. Gross merchandise volume, a key metric describing revenue from orders made on Shopify’s platform, saw its growth slow last quarter, too. Meanwhile, all its product investment has held it back from profitability. And its stock has seen a few tumbles recently, in part because vocal short-seller Andrew Left has criticized aspects of Shopify’s business model.
Still, Shopify has its eyes set on growth. Executives spent the past few days revealing new services and products they hope will expand the company’s global reach, make its entrepreneur merchants’ lives easier, and make servicing those clients a more enticing prospect for its partner developers.
With a market capitalization of $19.6-billion, Shopify is in the race to become Canada’s most valuable public technology company, as it increasingly sees itself as a broad, global enabler of retail entrepreneurs – the local-focused alternative to large marketplaces such as Amazon. Expanding into Amazon’s turf is a tall order. With a market cap of US$784-billion – and its own suite of small-business tools – it accounts for 44 per cent of all U.S. digital sales last year, according to One Click Retail research.
In interviews on Wednesday, both Mr. Finkelstein and chief executive Tobi Lutke used physical retail’s history as a metaphor for Shopify’s multichannel strategic goals. They see the company as an enabler of personable, urban-downtown-style retail: a platform with tools to help mom-and-pop businesses flourish in whatever way works best for them – with physical, digital or increasingly hybrid retail – so that sprawling megastores don’t suck up all the oxygen. This kind of success-sharing and wealth-enabling, Mr. Lutke says, is inherently Canadian. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who attended, echoed those thoughts.
“Most companies in the world are interested in reducing opportunity in the marketplace; they want to go through the door and then close it behind them,” Mr. Lutke said on Wednesday. “I don’t think anyone’s attempted to build a global company that’s derivative of Canadian culture. … What is more Canadian than spending a decade and a bit figuring out something really technical, but also important, and then go to share it with the world?”
That “decade and a bit” has seen Shopify turn from a simple e-commerce platform to what executives describe as a full-fledged “retail operating system” – one that helps its customers both run and grow numerous parts of their business, from enabling sales on social-media channels to offering product-shipping programs.
The company is trying to grow both the size and range of its services, Mr. Finkelstein said, as its range of customers changes. Its more robust Shopify Plus platform, designed for larger brands at a minimum cost of US$2,000 a month, was originally designed for small merchants who’d grown; the COO said that in recent quarters, the majority of its new Plus members were new to the platform altogether.
At the conference this week, Shopify announced it would soon open a bricks-and-mortar showroom for its merchants to get on-hand business support; a debit-and-credit-card tap reader for its growing group of customers with physical locations; an AI-powered messaging app to help entrepreneurs interact with customers and automate parts of their business; and support for a growing number of currencies, digital payment methods, and languages beyond English to expand global growth.
Mr. Trudeau stopped by the Unite Conference on Tuesday afternoon for a keynote conversation. Turning to Mr. Lutke, Mr. Trudeau described parallels between his vision for Canada’s future and Shopify’s broader strategy.
“What you’re doing is really creating opportunities for individuals, for small businesses, for entrepreneurs to succeed in very real tangible ways,” the Prime Minister said. “That’s one of the real differences [between] the stereotypical view of the American Dream versus the Canadian dream.”