TORONTO — Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the Retail Council of Canada marked the milestone Tuesday with the launch of Store 2013 — the largest annual retail conference in Canada.

Representing more than 43,000 retailers in Canada, the industry-funded, not-for-profit association kicked off the two-day event with the help of Target Canada president Tony Fisher and Andrew Jennings, the chief executive officer of Karstadt of Germany. The two brandish different track records (Fisher began his career with Target in 1999, and Jennings spent 39 years working at high-end stores such as Harrods, Saks Fifth Avenue and Holt Renfrew). Despite those differences, both executives stressed the importance of embracing social media and listening to customers 24/7 in order to survive in today’s “change or die” retail environment.

“Competition is everywhere and it’s intense,” Fisher told the crowd at the Toronto Congress Centre.

Social media, daily price wars and the ongoing challenges of recruiting passionate, motivated employees were all key corporate concerns that Fisher said had to be addressed in order to succeed in today’s business landscape. That recommendation, he added, applies equally to fledgling retailers and industry giants like Target, particularly as the company rolls out its new Target Canada stores in Ontario and Quebec.

“The change we have seen in the last 14 years is more dramatic than anything we experienced in our first 37 years in business,” said Fisher. “Last year the U.N. said there are as many cell phones in use as there are people on the planet. Fifty percent of today’s retail sales are Web influenced. Social media has changed everything.”

Even in the midst of such change, what has remained consistent is the consumer’s desire for “a positive shopping experience,” according to Fisher.

“It’s not enough to come to Canada and transplant Target. It’s about building a company that’s truly Canadian and making sure our stores reflect the uniqueness” of consumers throughout Canada, said Fisher.

To that end, Target Canada has reached out to Canadian designers and organizations such as the Toronto Fashion Incubator to bring local flavor to its new stores, particularly in French-speaking Quebec. The company has also listened earnestly to complaints from its new Canadian customers, particularly concerning pricing and how it compares with Target’s U.S. store locations.

According to Fisher, Target’s Canadian pricing “across a range of products storewide is exactly on par with our U.S. pricing.”

Looking ahead, Fisher said retailers have reason to be “optimistic about the future.” That sentiment was shared by Jennings.

Speaking to the audience remotely from Germany, Jennings said the traditional retail industry “has a bright future.” But change must be part of that plan.

“Change is the only constant. Retail leaders have to understand the quantum of change and the way we do business,” said Jennings.

In today’s new business landscape, savvy customers who educate themselves about pricing and products online “will decide who are the retail winners and losers in the marketplace,” according to Jennings. “Today word of mouth is as likely to be digital as it is verbal.

“Today more than 50 percent of Facebook users and 80 percent of Twitter users expect a response by a customer service rep in one day or less. Customer needs are evolving every day, and we have to deliver service and product as fast as we possibly can.”

Even with the aid of online media, retailers will need good business strategies and the ability to execute them ruthlessly to succeed in the years ahead. That strategy includes tapping into employee creativity in more effective ways.

“New technologies are powerful but without good people behind them they are nothing. We as senior leaders in this industry have a responsibility to grow talent. The quality of our people is as important as ever — in fact, more important,” Jennings said. “We have to recruit the best people we can and turn good people into great people.”

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