“A Real Early Eye-Opener”

Sending me to report on retail technology is like sending a fish to compete in the Tour de France. Compound that with the fact that the seminar was a very early morning breakfast event across town (I am not a morning person) and the fact that I’m of the wrong generation to understand these things (Baby Boomer vs. Millennial) and voila! you’ve got your basic fish out of water on a bicycle. Sorry for the poisson references: I saw Larry David “Fish in the Dark” last night and laughed so much I checked to make sure my sides were indeed intact.

Getting back to the FGI event “Retail Reality Check” at The New York Hilton, the program began with a word from sponsor Marie Claire’s Publisher and VP Nancy Berger Cardone, as a very lovely breakfast of fresh fruit, pastries, and spinach and cheese quiche was put before us. Cardone introduced the topic of shopping by saying that it was better than sex : “If you buy something that doesn’t work out at least you can exchange it for something you really like.” Larry David’s she’s not although it got a polite giggle.

Robin Lewis, author, speaker and consultant for the retail and consumer products industries, took the mic next. He spoke of the future of the Omnichannel approach to sales which seeks to blend shopping in a brick-and-mortar store with its online presence giving the customer a seamless shopping experience. He referenced what some in the room (moi included) probably didn’t want to hear: that we Boomers are being phased out (retail-wise anyway as we are downsizing and spending money on travel) while Millennials are being courted, as they account for 40% of all retail sales.

The “huge generational shift” as he termed it, of smart phone addicted e-commerce inclined shoppers are greater in number but earn less. Retailers are responding by having to create a “wonderful new frontier” to compete amongst themselves. He listed troubling factors such as a piddling two and a half percent economic growth, stagnant wage earnings, an onslaught of internet players, and perpetual discounts, all not boding well for retailers. Additional factors include the loss of “mall hanging which has been replaced with hanging on smart phones.” Social networking and the ability to shop right from your phone has taken over what he termed the “Cool Individualists” vs. the “Cool Conformists.” Now everyone wants special items that no one else has, as opposed to just wanting to fit in by wearing what the “cool” kids wore.

Lastly, he spoke of three strategies which will help retailers “win that consumer purchase over competitors of the 21st Century.”  The first is to make it a “compelling and addicting experience.” The second is to “seamlessly deliver omnichannel with a quicker and easier access to the consumer” and the third is to be vertically integrated.

Paul Charron, Robin Lewis, Karen Katz, Nancy Berger Cardone,
& April Uchitel, Steve Bock

Moderator Paul Charron, retired former chairman and CEO of LIz Claiborne Inc, senior advisor to Warburg Pincus and a member of the Campbell Soup Company Board of Directors, introduced the panel of Steve Bock, president of Bedrock Manufacturing (Shinola watches); Karen Katz, president and CEO of Neiman Marcus Group; and April Uchitel, chief brand officer of Spring, a new shopping application startup that is only nine months old.

Bock spoke of Shinola watches as a “brand concept driven by design. It’s very clean and simple; no need to make it more elaborate” he said perhaps a touch defensively in this technological age. Shinola began in Detroit just four years ago and is one of the companies that has seemed to grab the public’s consciousness and wallets. The brand began with shoe polish (hence the name) and now includes bikes (haha the fish reference again), watches and journals. There is a very compelling story regarding Shinola’s creation of jobs in the U.S. (they’ve gone from 4 employees to 300) particularly in hard hit areas of unemployment such as Detroit.

Uchitel who resembles a redheaded version of Jenna Lyons, explained that Spring is a marketplace designed for direct to consumer sales with a “mall mentality.” They are an aggregator of brands, now 760 strong, and work from Apple and Android apps on mobile devices. Named one of the top 25 new apps by Apple, Spring is “purely a marketplace to allow brands to run their own shops, from fast fashion to luxury, the way most people shop” she said. Marketing techniques run along the “if you like this, you’ll like that” line. “We are constantly repositioning in response to the customer” she added.

Karen Katz spoke of NM Group (encompassing Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman) from the perspective of being a retail store for over one hundred years that entered the digital fray in 1999. She addressed the problems of having to transition from a brick-and-mortar heritage store attempting to stay modern in the digital age. “Tech has completely transformed interactions with customers,” she said, citing transparency (pricing remaining consistent), the ability to move seamlessly between all channels (making sure inventories are linked and sales associates are also linked to the websites). Personalization seems to be the next frontier, from identifying the customer whether they are shopping in-store or digitally. “How we communicate with her, the products we show her–we need to bring them all together” she added.

Katz acknowledged that the days of being able to train or “dictate” (although she hesitated to use that word) what brands or information a customer should have are effectively moot. “Consumers are so highly educated now. It’s been a real game changer in how to communicate.”

In retrospect, I would say that the key words of the day were: Seamless, Omnichannel, Personalization and Communication, most of which I understand fairly well. I also learned that “Retail is a constantly evolving phenomena.” (Bock); “Fashion is all about great product and free shipping is mandatory as the customer demands it” (Uchitel); and “Teams need to take risks and embrace the idea of failing sometimes.” (Katz) referring to NM’s attempt to gain an international presence. (“We went all guns a-blazing to China. The blow-out was quick and a it was a flame-out” she said regarding the eight months that NM tried to establish a presence there, instead acquiring MyTheresa.com to that end.)

Thankfully the words “Analytics, algorithms and logistics” didn’t raise their ugly heads until the last minute as a nod to the Goldman Sachs faithful (another sponsor). At that point I knew it was time for the clueless (me) to depart by public transportation since, like the fish, I don’t ride a bicycle.

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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