The Future of Retail: 9 Experts Share Insights

Shoptalk stage

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Even as headlines about the retail apocalypse returned after widely expected store closures were announced...hope was palatable at a recent Shoptalk in Las Vegas.

Here’s what I heard...

There is a renewed emphasis on the customer experience, but how you show varies widely by the technology you choose. The good news is that no matter what your size, the big retailers no longer hold all the payment, delivery, pricing, and personalization tools; if you want them, the Shoptalk Expo showed they are out there.

The bad news is that out of all the presentations I heard, not one was investing in boots on the floor. Associates were talked about often as providing the last mile of a brand’s identity and customer service, but nothing was detailed about new ways to train and encourage the associates touching 90% of purchases that are still happening in-store.

As a speaker and consultant working in that space - and getting results - that was a big miss.

Technology isn’t the only answer. It’s a tool.

I discovered some great insights from my retail colleagues, not only from the stage but also at breakfast meetings and one-on-ones. Here are some of their insights on what they’re seeing in retail right now as well as the future of retail.

Steve Sadove, Principal at Stephen Sadove and Associates, said, “Companies are finally focusing on the role that people, culture, and leadership play in driving results. Companies are starting to say, ‘Hey, we've got to fundamentally change our culture.’ Doug McMillon and Marc Lore fundamentally changed the culture of Walmart and are the outliers, because many of the companies say the talk, but have a very hard time moving their culture.”

Melissa Gonzalez, CEO of The Lionesque Group, said, “We're seeing people try to re-understand what experience means. It's not creating an Instagramable moment. It's about creating something that you can immerse your customers in. It's storytelling. It's customer service. It is trying to understand how we do that by integrating technology in purposeful ways in brick and mortar. It's not just checking the box of we have an endless aisle on a touchscreen. It’s really how are you going to close this online-offline loop and make it seamless and exciting for consumers?”

“We're also seeing mass-market brands saying, ‘We can't just be wholesale distributed anymore through Walmart and Walgreens. We need to have our own story too.’ So you're seeing brands like CoverGirl open their first stores, and there will be those who follow. We are getting hired by real estate developers and mall operators who ask, ‘How do we rethink how we offer space? And, how do we create platforms that are attractive to the next generation of brands?’"

Jim Donald, CEO of Albertsons, got the biggest laugh of the conference when he said, “People ask me, with all that’s going on, how do you sleep?' And I say, 'Like a baby: I wake up every two hours and cry.” He continued in all seriousness...

“We’re not looking at trying something to be first or foremost. I don’t mind being a follower in the world of e-commerce. When you boil the whole e-commerce piece down and bolt it onto bricks and mortar, there are certain areas that make sense: Drive Up & Go, infinite aisles, partnering with a company like Takeoff. We’re not trying to reinvent e-commerce; we’re looking at the best practices and going from there.” 

Greg Petro, CEO of First Insight, said, “We're seeing an enormous uptick in subscription models; we look at it from men and women, as well as Millennials and Baby Boomers. Men are more engaged from a subscription model than women. However, the rate of women's conversion rates into subscription models is increasing at a higher rate. In the next six months, both categories or segments of the market expect to be over 50% involved in subscription models. Millennials obviously lead Baby Boomers, however, the growth of Baby Boomers is five times higher than the current engagement in subscription models.

“Why are consumers doing it from the subscription perspective? There's a convenience factor, but there's also the surprise, right? ‘Hey, I've given myself a gift."

“As far as their engagement online versus in-store, when a consumer is engaged with a brand or retailer or manufacturer online, and they've gone to the store, not only are they engaged to activate that purchase at a higher rate in-store, but to add-on an additional product is much higher in-store than it is online. The key takeaway for us is, if you have the products that the consumer wants at the pricing that they're looking for, the leverage point of a store is not a detriment, it's actually a great value driver.”

Listen to Greg about the power of physical retail stores on my podcast here.

Oliver Chen, Managing Director of Cowen, said, “What I liked was the idea of merging emotions into artificial intelligence and thinking of what personalization means in the future. One example that a speaker brought up was not to prioritize people in a wait queue on the phone by order. Instead prioritize them by anger and also by their ability to damage your reputation on social media. That was a good example of next-generation AI, which addresses context.”

He continued, “Gen Z is the most creative generation possible; everybody's an influencer and everyone's creating their own story. So how does a brand create a story with the customer and help the customer be their best self?” 

Chris Bossola, CEO of Need Supply, said, “We sell premium streetwear and luxury fashion to mostly Gen Z and Millennial customers around the world. You have to have a conversation with this customer base. You can't speak to them or at them. What we find is that our customer is buying, not for aspirational reasons. They're not buying because they want to signal that this cost a lot. Right? This is a $3,000 bag.”

“They're buying for inspirational reasons. They're buying because it's a brand, there's a designer behind the brand. They're signaling a level of cultural knowledge that their peers share with them. And it's a different mindset than the old luxury customer.”

Roy Erez, CEO of Loop Commerce, said, “Our customers include Target, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Coach, Michael Kors, Uniqlo, etc. When you go to their pages, you'll see a GiftNow Call-to-Action. GiftNow essentially says, just buy this, put a greeting note, pay, and you're done.  The recipient gets a text or an email instantly because it's about you gifting. We don't ask questions that you don't know about: size, color, and shipping address.  You don't need that gift to be shipped, you need it to be delivered.”

“We have decoupled those two words.”

“We have been able to completely transform how people shop online. Guys who are not good at buying stuff can buy that thoughtful item without the risk.”

“GiftNow drives 50% of the male audience because, once again, they're buying risk-free and thoughtful. It turns out they actually do want to buy shoes. How do you gift shoes? Zappos and Amazon taught us, you buy 10 and return 9. But when it comes to gifts, you can't do that. It turns out when you eliminate the need for a size, for example, for Father's Day, shoes were the number one product for men.”

“Millennials are actually very thoughtful, they actually have money. They're the group that's the least likely to buy a gift card. They want to spend.”

“And the male audience spends significantly more than female but women actually buy much, much more. Men forget. We buy the day of, which, again, transforms how commerce is thinking. A shipping cut-off is a norm for retailers. "Buy by the 21st to get it on the 24th," is how we roll. But that doesn't make sense.”

“It's a closed for business sign three, four weeks in a year at a peak holiday. We’ve transformed how things are being done, and the package doesn't need to be shipped, the gift needs to be delivered. That's where digital evolves and how consumers change their gifting habits.”

Jonathan Treiber, CEO of RevTrax, said, “In the world of customer acquisition marketing, retailers don't know who you are until you make a purchase. We're facilitating that and accelerating the path to purchase to get you from an online search to the store to buy, where it's been proven you'll buy 30% more.”

“There’s an old saying, ‘An educated customer is the best customer.’ It rings true. People who are online searching are researching. They're doing things to show intent. If you can get them from the educated research standpoint, they're armed and dangerous. And if you can then drive that through a targeted incentive to fulfill it in store where you're going to get merchandising support and associate support, you're going to sell more.”

Hear Jonathan on my podcast here.

Oddest quote?

Art Peck, President & CEO of Gap said, “Service is missing today in retail. There is plenty of traffic but not plenty of conversion. We celebrate when 70% of shoppers leave our stores without buying anything.”

Agreed, Mr. Peck.

If so, why is your brand known for an endless parade of 40%-off sales every weekend at your namesake stores?

See also, Neiman Marcus Visit Illustrates Why Brick And Mortar Stores Are Losing Money

In Sum

There was a lot of optimism about retail trends at Shoptalk which is good.


It felt like many speakers were talking more to investors everything’s coming up roses rather than talking shop. When you’re millions in debt or comp sales are consistently down, not sure why your brand is given the stage to put a good face on a retail organization clearly in trouble. 

As Anil Aggarwal, Founder and CEO of ShopTalk, said at the opening, "We believe reinventing retail is not an option. It is an obligation, a collective obligation to consumers, whether it is physical or digital or a combination of the two. Too much of retail is out of date and needs to transform. In 10 years, everyone will look back and ask, did shopping really look like that back in 2019?”

Indeed, it did.

Those retailers who are looking to compete can take these experts’ thoughts as either a validation of their strategies or a wake-up call.

And if it’s a wake-up call on customer service and selling to the 70% of shoppers who leave your store without making a purchase, join other smart retail brands and make a call to me.