Last week’s trip to Shoptalk in Las Vegas was my second, engaging in one of the retail industry’s most in-touch conferences. I always approach these trips with the goal of trying to get an overview of three things: what challenges are troubling retailers the most and who is working to solve them; what new trends are bubbling out on the horizon; and what technologies or initiatives have become obsolete or reached saturation.
Shoptalk didn't disappoint, with a well-organized smorgasbord of content and thought-provoking presentations that were mostly transparent and thankfully not scripted company sales presentations. Over the four days, I was able to take in five keynotes, 25 sessions, and have great conversations while traversing the exhibit floor multiple times. Here’s my insight on the highlights and key takeaways from Shoptalk.
Buzzword of the Week
At every industry conference, there's one buzzword we just can’t get away from, sort of like the highlight reel from "The Bachelor," where every other word is amazing. Thankfully, pivot has finally run its course, with only lingering remnants making its way into session presentations. This year’s word, intent, was by far the winner, and it has a lot more practical implications for sticking around. Spanning from search intent, buying intent, marketplace purchase intent to platform intent, the list is long. Overall what's meant by intent is that there's a movement afoot to dig much deeper into what the customer is telling us through their actions, the answers found in the data, and through customer conversations with the company on platforms such as review sites, social media, and actual customer service interactions. Bridget Davies from eBay insightfully discussed shoppers’ intent on marketplaces, dissecting why they would choose eBay over Amazon.com. In an interesting session covering venture capitalists’ perspectives on retail innovation, Aileen Lee from Cowboy Ventures stated she's highly interested in platforms that are focused on the intention of delivering fun and community.
One of the best keynote conversations was delivered by Erik Nordstrom, who opened the conference on Sunday with thoughtful answers to pressing questions about how Nordstrom is dealing with the ongoing pressure to deliver great customer experiences. Erik is a seasoned retail veteran that clearly has a calm and open-minded leadership style, and one who embraces change and input on how to the keep the company relevant amidst ever-demanding noise and competition for customers. I particularly loved his response to the typical line of questioning on the gloomy fate of traditional department stores, when he insightfully stated that Nordstrom has always viewed itself as a specialty retailer, although it's labeled a department store based on its store locations physically anchoring malls.
Certainly what’s on everyone’s mind is data: how to use it, where to start, what role should it play, etc. Daniel Alegre from Google provided great top-level insights from the search giant. For example, Alegre noted that half of all customers confirm inventory availability before driving to a store, 50 percent of online shoppers are inspired to purchase from an image, and 50 percent of customers say they purchased elsewhere because information wasn't customized to their current mobile situation.
Tami Mahoney from Modell’s Sporting Goods shared that great experiences with data can get very tangled, and the retailer has found the key is to stay focused on what the company mission is, what it is you're trying to achieve, and how you're going to get there. For Modell's, it’s less about the data and more about the service outcomes.
At Lilly Pulitzer, Sarah Engel shared that the apparel brand's guidepost is using data to execute the age-old retail measurement of customer delight. Lilly Pulitzer has found that if there's not true organizational alignment around the importance of communicating on data, metrics and goals, there's no real ability to measure. Furthermore, it's critical to reward those who demonstrate intellectual curiosity, those who sometimes challenge the status quo.
The final valuable insight I heard on the data dialog came from John Evons at KEEN, who said that customers are giving you the opportunity to learn more about them, which he meant through their permission of allowing you to collect their data.
Disrupter Being Disrupted
With certainty, we know that consumers aren't going to revert back to non-digitally connected shopping behavior. While Neela Montgomery from Crate and Barrel shared that 45 percent of its sales are coming online, due largely in part to its registries, we know that most retailers still find about 90 percent of their sales occur in physical stores. The key point I think is important to embrace here is not where a transaction occurs, because the customer is navigating through numerous touchpoints to get to their final conversion, but what their experience is like at all interactions. The conversion funnel is no longer a funnel — it’s more of a winding path with no two journeys alike.
Edward Park from GUESS cautioned that amid all the slick technology available, it’s important to keep product and customers at the center of strategic decision making. Park articulated, as did Kent Salisbury from Overstock, that they must continually look at their company’s present journey and offerings to keep evolving to meet customer needs. Reinventing tired loyalty programs to meet current, changed customer demands was another common theme, with good examples offered by traditional retailers Target, DSW and Nordstrom. The most introspective dialog came from JT Marino, co-founder of Tuft & Needle, who transparently shared that his mattress and bedding company, which in 2013 was the category disrupter, now finds itself being disrupted by offshore companies that are able to quickly replicate and create pricing and pipeline pressure. There's no endpoint to the cycle of innovation and adaption, even for the new sheriff in town.
The conference layout was again efficient to navigate for the 8,000-plus attendees. There were plenty of creative, innovative experiences, including free haircuts, headshots and massages at large, open, inviting booths. The couple of rows of small spaces dedicated to scrappy startups was also interesting to explore. One of my favorite spaces, tucked over by the main stage, was The FQ Lounge, headed by Shelley Zalis and The Female Quotient, and sponsored by Women in Retail Leadership Circle gurus Melissa Campanelli and Jennifer DiPasquale. Zalis and DTX founder Tim Armstrong had a frank discussion about the void in startup funding that goes to women-run businesses, currently only at 3 percent. Armstrong shared great advice and ideas on how to break the traditional cycle that has experienced very little progress to date.
Shoptalk 2019 was well worth the trip and time invested, itself evolving well in a competitive space.
Linda Mihalick is a lecturer in the department of Merchandising and Digital Retailing, College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism at the University of North Texas. She's also the senior director of the Global Digital Retailing Research Center at UNT.