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4 Things I Learned at Shoptalk

4 Things I Learned at Shoptalk
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For all the various retail content I consume on a daily basis, nothing beats getting to see and hear firsthand what’s top-of-mind and cutting edge in the industry. Today wraps up three days of talks, demos, and networking at Shoptalk - an event that someone called the “Oscars of Retail.” (I might be partial, but I do have to say that we are a collectively well-dressed group.) There’s a lot happening during the event, but I can say I walked away smarter and with new ideas a-brewing. In no particular order - what I learned this week:

Big Meets Small

We’ve been talking a lot about start-up culture recently (and don’t worry, there’s gonna be a lot more of that), and how larger organizations can take and adapt the strategies of smaller outfits to successfully pilot and scale new initiatives. During Tuesday’s session covering the Future of E-Commerce, Marc Rosen, EVP of Global-E-Commerce at Levi’s, talked about how the company’s location in San Francisco has been deeply advantageous for them in their identification of and partnerships with emerging technology firms. His rules and requirements for a successful big-small relationship? As they A/B test, they look for tech that actually works (style + substance, please), is flexible to their needs, and is scalable.

Other discussions explored why and how Niche brands (and at one point, start-ups) like Allbirds (footwear), Ollie (pet food), and Sphero (connected play) have grabbed market share. The themes clustered around, first, the identification of an unmet consumer need, and second, as Joey Zwillinger, Co-Founder of Allbirds said, “coming to market with an incredible amount of conviction.” A highly-curated market introduction for Allbirds was all about “doing better things in a better way.”

Looking around the room at the global brands and retailers taking in these discussions - despite different scale and market pressures - it was clear that big can indeed learn from small(ish) on the design and execution of a unique customer value proposition.

No matter your size, curation, story-telling, and quality are all within reach.

A Deeply Personal Shopping Experience

Technology doesn’t generally give me the warm and fuzzies. And in the context of a discussion of a widely-known global brand, usually even less so. (Sorry, it’s not personal, Alexa.) Yet the week’s agenda surfaced another recurring theme of how technology is enabling retailers to connect to the consumer in new ways. And by connection, I don’t just mean that you convert shopper to customer. Instead, it’s about how you can connect that individual to a community of like-minded others (all of whom have high potential for conversion, of course). Emily Weiss of Glossier talked about how from the first days of the company, she thought about what was possible, “if you took the brand out of the equation,” and gave its direction over to the hands of the consumer. And the data speaks for itself, when more than three-quarters of the brand’s sales are via word-of-mouth. She spoke of one “Glossier Girl,” Noor, who has, via her personal recommendations on Instagram, not only converted new shoppers to Glossier at a rate of nearly 100%, but she has also engaged with her following on a deeper level (and by proxy, the brand). She's done so by making recommendations on topics including where to get a facial, where to shop for clothes, and how to use other non-Glossier beauty products. The result of this type of conversation? Not only do people discover great new products, but they also find new friends and confidantes.

And it wasn’t just Glossier who spoke of the tactics and technology enabling this new kind of “conversational commerce.” Nike Chief Digital Officer, Adam Sussman, discussed how they decided to upend, democratize, and bring back the “sport of shopping” to the limited edition sneaker market. What did they do? They gamified the hunt for sought-after kicks via their SNKRS app that gives early access to launches, has interactive scavenger hunts, and unsurprisingly, boasts an elevated customer conversion rate.

The lesson here? Technology is the medium through which your brand connects, not only to your products, but also a community. And that community? It’s one of your brand’s most important assets.

Own and Differentiate Your Channels

No one talked about Amazon at all this week. JK, they were everywhere. Presenting, being talked about, listening to us (I’m kidding?). But the underlying and adjacent theme for brands selling through both Amazon (and other marketplaces) as well as owned sites, was how to differentiate between these discrete channels.

Charlie Cole, Chief E-Commerce Officer at Samsonite, clearly outlined both the opportunities and challenges inherent in marketplace selling. He said, “Look, marketplaces do get eyeballs and generate interest, but they also carry risk of price arbitrage.” Both he and Marc Rosen of Levi’s reinforced the importance of a giving customers a clear reason to pick one channel over another. For Levi’s brand site, it’s about addressing the common issues of fit and style, and they’re using tools like their Virtual Stylist to help shoppers get the right pair of jeans the first time around - a highly personalized (and pain-free) experience that results in higher sales and customer loyalty.

Your owned site is a place to present your product in the most personal way possible, so what are you doing to deliver that?

The Human Touch

Whether walking the floor of the expo or sitting in sessions, it was hard to escape the notion that retail is inseparable from technology. And while we couldn’t agree more, there was one session in particular that reminded us how important the human part of successful tech adoption is. Tuesday afternoon’s session on the Evolving Store Workforce centered on a discussion with executives from The Source, The Container Store, and Walmart, about how they’re equipping their store staff to deliver the best experience - and here’s the best part - how those initiatives are paying for themselves. Charles Brown, President of The Source, talked about how they’ve drastically reduced their store associate turnover with renewed training efforts, but they’ve also increased average per employee sales because staff sticks around longer, their cumulative knowledge grows, and they are ultimately incentivized to earn more. For John Thrakill at Container Store, where for 19 years running they have been voted a Fortune Top 100 Employer, the technology that they have given their staff, helps them keep their “heads up” (rather than looking down at a phone or tablet) and interacting with the customer.

The point here? The store associate is an oft-maligned and under-appreciated part of bringing transformation initiatives to life, despite the fact that they’re the first touchpoint a customer has with your brand. And training and technology go hand-in-hand, no matter where in the organization you're considering its deployment. Whatever technology, be it marketing personalization, on-site experience, or analytics, requires the people utilizing it to see the clear value of its adoption. “How does this make my job easier?” “How does this help us work smarter and be more profitable?” Address these issues out of the gate, and your technology adoption has a significantly higher likelihood of success.

If I could vote for additional content in future Shoptalks, it would be for more focus on the people part of technology adoption.

Just my two cents, of course.

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