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Shoptalk 2019: The city of lights delivers

Juanita Neville-Te Rito shares a sprinkle of retail magic from Las Vegas retail conference Shoptalk.

By Juanita Neville-Te Rito | June 20, 2019 | News

Have you ever experienced indigestion? That burning sensation in the top of your stomach which sort of feels like you can’t quite breathe? I feel a bit like that: retail indigestion. And a bit dizzy as well from all the exciting new information to process and bring to life back here in little old New Zealand. 

In the last three months, my team has attended two of the largest retail conferences in the world and topped it off with a local one in Melbourne (Retail 2019). The start of the year brings the best innovators, tech-practitioners, retailers and disruptors to massive locations in the US. A significant highlight of the calendar was being in Las Vegas, city of lights, for our second Shoptalk experience. 

Shoptalk is one of our favourite retail conferences. It brings a youthful and authentic energy that other conferences fail to achieve. Only in its fourth year, it feels more visceral than other conferences. Walking the conference rooms, hanging with “your” tribe – those who are embracing the new retail normal and keeping it quite real about the results and impact. There are retailers here telling it as it is; what they got right, what they got wrong, what they don’t know and what they are damn curious about.  

Where enormous conferences can be prone to leaving you feeling overwhelmed, with a sense of dissonance that you didn’t get to see and hear everything, Shoptalk makes you desperate to take your learnings and run with it. It brings a candor and delivers a relaxed approach and that isn’t just us enjoying the end of day drinks or the free blow waves and pamper sessions in the exhibition hall (and no, we weren’t sampling any of the local cannabis cultivation either). Some CEOs don’t get into the nitty gritty, yet other executives can provide insight that is pure gold. It’s a good balance from Macy’s, Nordstrom, Gap, Amazon, Lowe’s, Mattel, Ulta, Walmart, Google, Levi’s, Dollar Shave Club, Dirty Lemon, Tuft and Needle, Facebook and many, many more: these guys are all sharing their insights, their journey and difficulties. Retailers new and old together.

Being in New Zealand, a land where the number eight wire and “we can do anything” attitude prevails, with a population under five million and a remoteness that can make tackling the wide world of retail impossible, there are still many learnings to take away applicable for our market. I like to wander and think what a joy it is to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Insights from those rich US retailers overflowing with investment, customers and resources to bring back to us smaller Antipodean retailers who can’t often see the woods for the trees as we “sprint our marathon” of retail adventure. So for you, here is some magic retail gold dust.

Flowing fountains of golden retail insight

Shoptalk is split into “streams” around the keynote speakers, allowing you to immerse yourself into the areas that are relevant to your business. These include:

·     Next generation retail experiences – the transformation of physical retail, ecommerce and stores.

·     The new retail organisation – leadership and culture, omnichannel.

·     Marketing and today’s new consumer - research and insights, data driven marketing.

·     The future of brands – Building brands.

·     Technology transformation in retail – AI, robotics and automation.

·     Logistics and supply chain – Operational optimization.

All streams covered the big issues from connected commerce, sustainability, global retail, personalisation, employees, AI, Amazon, content and retail tech. Often there were learnings that straddled across major issues, but big themes did emerge.

Omnichannel, offline, online - the customer simply doesn’t care. Just deliver.

I’ve been incredibly frustrated with the big “omnichannel” discussion of the past. Some retailers had to get their head around each piece of the puzzle before they could merge them together as simple. This simple integration is now our retail normal -  an ecosystem for the shopper to exist in, which must work and deliver in harmony. “Existing in” being a critical point. The customer is a key co-creator, tribesperson, advocate and buyer.

At the conference, many retailers acknowledged that this ecosystem can be harder than one thinks and that going hard core on ecommerce at the expense of physical retail may not be the solution. Nordstrom acknowledged that more than 50 percent of store visits start online. In addition, 50 percent of shoppers are pulling something up on their phones while instore. Nordstrom, through their ability to know who their customers are and what they are doing also confirmed that 30 percent of their online purchases start instore. Complicated? That’s just how shoppers want to shop. Whenever, wherever and however suits them.

What was refreshing were the likes of Macy’s confirming that their online sales were negatively impacted when a physical store closes. Well, well, well! Who would have thought – it really is an ecosystem. 

What many retailers talked to is the challenge of measurability of the impact of what you are doing. Online behaviour is incredibly measureable and the race is on to ensure that instore behaviour is just as measureable.

“Just deliver it” still is a big challenge for retailers large and small (Phew – thought it was just you). What made everyone sigh in relief is that even the big guys with the capability and resources are finding it tough and few are doing it well. At least we all can work harder to improve our grades in this arena.

Useable data in the great data debate

Data is always a huge topic at any retail event. But the insights and rewards are real and both retailers and consumers are benefiting. Retail examples such as Nike, Nordstrom and Gap have proven that when strategy is connected to the utilisation of transactional data, great things can happen.

It relies on data being useable. It seems obvious but this was an incredible source of discussion. How some retailers are “weaponising their data” and “Consumers aren’t getting anything back from companies other than being bombarded by ads.”

Solution providers and agencies throughout the conference continued to emphasise the need to look at data holistically. This was summed up well from Performics; “Look at data more holistically, rather than responding to a push to use it in some way. In the world of endless data, the pursuit of solutions first, data second is the road to success.” 

What does that mean in layman terms? As an organisation you must be constantly checking back in: What is your mission?What do you want to get out of it?What are you trying to achieve?

Panera Bread vice president of experience design, Mark Berimato, provided an example of how Panera decided convenience is where their focus needed to be. Letting the customer shop the way they want to shop meant thatthe data insights need to translate into service and making this as seamless as possible. Much the way as you can order at McDonald’s via app, self-service kiosk, drive-thru of at the counter. These are both great examples of digital and physical being used and allowing the customer to shop how they want to shop. 

Community, content, experience

If there is something digitally native brands (DTC – direct to consumer) have done successfully is to build a powerful community that they speak with, listen to and co-create with.

While many of these retailers are planning to open physical stores, they have never lost sight of their communities being their marketing channels.

Lively founder and CEO Michelle Cordeiro Grant talked about how customers told them that they wanted to hear more stories about women. The result was the creation of a podcast, creating content for consumers with not a dollar spent on advertising. Today the business has over 65,000 influencers on Instagram – their customers.

"Those women are our marketing channel… they're not getting paid. They're doing it because they love what the brand stands for and they love interacting with one another in real life… At the end of the day, we're creating euphoric moments where they're interacting with the people they love, doing what they love, and so they go home and they don't just share Lively, they shout it."

[INSERT PICTURE OF SNAP LEGO STORE]

Another example of community and content was delivered by Snap (you may remember Snapchat rebranded!) Jeff Miller, global head of business marketing at Snap, talked about its work with Lego to make an entirely virtual Lego store accessed through the app. It required a real flip in thinking from 'What's the conversion in terms of how many Lego retail sales did you have on that given day,'" Miller said during the panel. 

"It's about: 'How do you drive awareness for your new, Lego retail line?' By doing something that people will post."

Visual search and image recognition were also a big highlight in both driving community engagement and driving sales. From Google making image ads shoppable to Pinterest allowing retailers to upload entire catalogues many of the speakers talked about image recognition providing a seamless experience.

Ted Mann, CEO of Slyce talked to an example where it’s easier for the shopper to compile a shopping list by snapping pictures of labels. Surprisingly new technology can identify the product and add it to an online shopping cart, especially where the current systems of barcodes let us down (think bananas, broccoli and tomatoes). What a way to get more shoppers to choose home delivery.

And the role for video? Endless. Already 90 percent of consumers say they’re discovering new products and brands on YouTube, according to Google.

Our people are the golden egg

While we didn’t find the “ah ha” solution, there was a lot of recognition that if the majority of sales happen in store then there is the biggest opportunity to deliver personalised experiences and services. Enabling store employees to be key sources for shopper insight will ensure that product development is tailored to customers’ feedback and in real time we can deliver satisfaction and delight, information and discovery, reward and recognition that you are a great customer.

Store employees can and should connect with their shopper community on a one to one basis. Marvin Ellison, CEO of Lowe’s, has been in the hot seat for about seven months. In a very wise move, on his first day at work he didn’t show up. To the head office that is. Instead he spent it in store, having lunch with employees, listening and asking questions.

"If I’m coming to a new company to solve problems, I may think I have all the answers, but really, I don’t," he said. "You have to listen to the culture and true concerns of employees and [find the] root cause of some things not working."

Ellison used the example of the way Lowe's thinks of its separate customers: the Do It Yourself-er; the "Do It For Me"; and the professional. Each of these groups should be catered to differently, and that can come from the store employee. "Better than any marketing campaign I can ever do are those 300,000 associates.” They are a part of the retailer’s mission. 

Full credit to this dude, he answers every employee email that comes through his inbox, and on Fridays, he produces a five-minute video about his week, what's in the news and what message he wants to reinforce. It is the only way he can reset culture. Being clear, demonstrating how they will get there, and measuring it. 

[Subhead 5] Try, fail and try again – at a rate of knots

I don’t think anyone would dispute that retailers have been too slow. But it’s tough. Massive legacy footprints, traditional ways of measuring success and a culture that rewards short-term results.

Nordstrom president Erik Nordstrom summed it up perfectly: “We think we’ve been too slow. We need to be more agile… to move faster.”

Apparently when Hudson’s Bay CEO Helena Foulkes was asked, “Who do you fear?” she replied, “Our own inability to not move fast enough.”

There was a lot of talk that the risk for the retailer is to under innovate. They simply aren’t used to the pace and how to be brave. Traditional performance hasn’t acknowledged failure and many digitally native brands and the big boys such as Amazon have led the way in this regard. But I get it. Easy if you have a seemingly endless money pit. So you need to be selective and focus on the stuff that will matter most to your shopper.

I like to think of this period to be one of consolidation, to get inspired and then propel into new and great things. Rather than a shopping existence driven by algorithms, what to buy, who to like, get this plus this and save, retail should provide discovery, joy and delight.

Doug Stephens, ‘The Retail Prophet’, probably summed up the opportunity best.

"The data-driven nature of many online recommendations actually winds us into tighter and tighter circles based on what we've already purchased, as opposed to expanding the realm of possibilities. For these reasons, the sheer joy of discovering a remarkable little retail shop with remarkable products is something that is becoming more prized in my opinion. The most amazing purchases are often the things we didn't even know existed, much less that we had a need for them!"

"Retailers with the capacity to curate unique assortments of products or to sell their assortments through a uniquely crafted experience will maintain a solid competitive position relative to online competitors."

How do I get more of this gold magic dust?

If you are asking yourself, do I need to wander off to these big conferences to hear from all these incredible people, talking about incredible concepts for their incredibly large marketplaces, I have some advice.

If you are a medium to large retailer who thinks there may be a bit too much staring into your belly button, reacting rather than leading and a mish-mash of strategy then yes. The investment is worth it to get out of your business, listen, talk and learn. Even if you only get three things, they are likely to be the most valuable pieces of gold you can get. And it’s great to get your head out of your business and drink some retail Kool-Aid.

If you are a smaller retailer, the investment and time away from your business might be overwhelming. You will feel on edge, tiny, insignificant, worried and hence what you hear irrelevant. But make sure you mark it in your diary and read all the recaps and highlights that you can from business reviews and magazine articles like this. The inspiration is likely to propel you to focus on a couple of pieces you can action and learn from.

For everyone, the most assuring thing is that retail is most definitely here to stay. The landscape is an exciting one, but not one as we know it and the basics are still the stuff that makes a difference:

  • Knowing who your customer is and delivering an incredible offer to them.
  • Adjusting based on feedback and insights.
  • Treasuring and developing your employees.
  • Having a clear vision of where we are going but tacking the course differently as the waters require you to get there.

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail issue 761 April / May 2019

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