What struck me the most thematically — aside from how much better ShopTalk has become than the NRF’s “Big Show” — was that the talks, panels and hallway discussions tended to fall into one of three buckets.
Despite the often relentlessly negative retail narrative in the mainstream media, there was a hopeful tone. As everyone should realize by now, the future of retail will not be evenly distributed — yet at the conference there was solid optimism. I attribute some of this to (generally) improving retail trends. I think there was also a sense that some of the more gut-wrenching changes — particularly mass store closings and major bankruptcies — were starting to ebb. Through direct conversations, as well as social media response, I also found quite a lot of alignment (or was it relief?) on my “Physical Retail Is Not Dead. Boring Retail Is” post, which was published on Day 2 of the show (and I referenced at the outset of the panel I moderated).
Another key driver of the emerging hopefulness was the traction some heretofore pie-in-the-sky technologies were beginning to exhibit. Numerous presenters, panelists and exhibitors showcased newly far more pragmatic applications of voice-activated commerce, artificial intelligence/machine learning and augmented or virtual reality. Personalization now finally seems ready for its closeup. Ultimately the devil is in the details — and a given retailer’s mileage will certainly vary — but there was plenty of meat to chew on for those committed to transforming the customer journey and being willing to embrace a culture of experimentation. (Pro top: That should be every retailer).
In multiple sessions greater light was shone on some undeniable realities. Whether one sees these as inconvenient truths, blinding flashes of the obvious or somewhere in between, several important things were hard to escape. Chief among them were:
- The digital-first customer journey. In the vast majority of cases, regardless of where the ultimate transaction is made, most customer journeys start in a digital channel–and more and more, that means on a mobile device.
- The customer is the channel. All the talk about digital channels versus physical stores is mostly a distinction without a difference. It’s all just commerce and silos belong on farms.
- The middle is collapsing. Just prior to ShopTalk Deloitte released an excellent study on the bifurcation of retail, which they showcased in a session. The study not only dispels the myth of the retail apocalypse but delves into the causes and conditions of the growth at the tail ends of the market and the reason why I have long suggested that it’s becoming death in the middle. The reality is retailers have to pick a lane and strive to become remarkable on either the price/value/convenience end of the spectrum or strive to make the shopping experience more intensely relevant and remarkable.
Sprinkled among the upbeat mood and growing acceptance of the new world order were moments of shocking denial or abject cluelessness. Most disturbing (or just plain sad) was when presenters would say something as if it were deep insight or some critically important new piece of strategic information. Instead they by and large only confirmed the degree to which they had been asleep at the wheel for the past decade. I won’t name names, but at least one retailer that presented will likely need a miracle on 34th Street to go from boring to truly remarkable.
Yes, brands are still important. Yes, multi-channel shoppers spend more than single channel shoppers. Yes, mobile is an important part of the customer journey. Yes, your e-commerce sales will go up in the trade area where you decide to open a store (newsflash: brands that started in catalog sales have known this for decades). Yes, when you close stores your e-commerce sales are likely to go down. All of this and more has been known for years to those who pay attention, do the work and are willing to act on their insight.
Stepping back, in total, there was a lot of great information and insight to be gleaned. I spoke with dozens of folks who had dozens of substantive follow-up actions that resulted from content sessions, one-on-one meeting or what started as purely social interactions. The key to all of this, of course, is to go from information to insight to action.
For legacy brands that are struggling — or newer brands that need to stay relevant over the long term — I remind them of a Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”