Online, in-store: Merge, retail, merge!August 6, 2012: 5:00 AM ET
A new software platform from LightSpeed works between retailers and e-commerce.
By Caitlin Keating, reporter
FORTUNE -- Everyone -- from J.C. Penney (JCP) CEO Ron Johnson to Barnes & Noble (BKS) CEO William J. Lynch -- wants to bridge the divide between online sales and in-store experience. They might use Saturdays Surf as an example. Saturdays is a surf shop without many surfboards in sight -- they're often stashed in the Manhattan shop's basement. When a customer asks to see the full inventory, Co-owner Morgan Collett takes out an iPad; a surfboard called The Levitator appears on the screen, along with its price and the board's specs. If the customer wants to hold the Levitator, Collet goes down to the basement and carries it upstairs. If the customer wants to buy the board, Collet taps the screen and swipes their credit card through a device attached to the iPad. The software Collett uses to display and sell his products on a tablet is called LightSpeed. It is that bridge.
LightSpeed treats retail inventory a bit like Amazon (AMZN) does. Or, better still, like an Apple (APPL) store. By keeping the bulk of its product out of site -- the surfboards, the boxed computers -- a store manager can focus on creating a space that maximizes the customer experience. In an era when e-commerce allows instant purchases, the goal of a physical store is increasingly to get people to come in, hang out, and thenbuy something. Apple has its Genius Bar. Saturdays has an espresso bar.
About 10,000 stores already use LightSpeed, and the number is fast growing. In June, the company received a $30 million Series A investment from Accel Partners, which Ryan Sweeny -- a partner at Accel -- says will be used to expand into larger retail stores. But the power of the software extends beyond the confines of the store itself. As Steve Metzman, CEO of iBusiness Technologies, puts it, "We encourage retailers to load their device with all of their products and attend outside events. It enables people to communicate on an even playing field with the web."
A shorter version of this story originally appeared in the August 13, 2012 issue of Fortune.