Amazon Go

LAS VEGAS — The digital age has forced a bit of an identity crisis on retailers, but with the discomfort of change comes the opportunity for more — more functionality for customers and more data for marketers.

That was the prevailing sentiment at a retail-focused talk here at CES Saturday, where experts discussed the transformative nature of technology on retailers both physical and digital and made predictions about the future.

The speakers were Kwolia chief executive officer and founder Anne Marie Stephen, Evrythng founder and chief marketing officer Andy Hobsbawm, The Science Project president and chief executive officer Jeremy Bergstein and Forbes contributor Laura Heller.

At a time when a prominent sports apparel company is now considered itself to be a data company — and using fashion as a tool to collect information — Stephen said that this highlighted what has become a major focus on data and has blurred the lines between a company’s identity as a retailer, or a fulfillment company, or a tech platform, or some combination.

She said that although many companies had become focused on data, they hadn’t yet figured out how to connect the omnichannel elements. “I love data because data tells stories, but you have to understand what the story is in that information,” she said.

Hobsbawm agreed that while companies might be crushed by the amount of data coming in and that it might offer a way to increase value, the challenge remains in analyzing the information.

All agreed that while companies “aren’t there yet,” neither are customers when it comes to the technology that is currently available.

Bergstein, who works with companies such as Uniqlo and Kate Spade, said, “We are overshooting with the amount of horsepower we give these customers. Most customers aren’t ready for this technology that is full volume.”

He recommended that retailers first consider what is appropriate for the brand. “We work with a lot of fancy fashion brands, and they are very discerning. We can’t bring in tech that seems extraneous or novel.”

Rather than just adding in technology because it exists, Stephen recommended approaching technology as an enabler to accomplish new innovations. She added that the “playbook” that might have existed 10 years ago was no longer valid.

“Retailers are very concerned about what is happening today, but that won’t lead to success in the future,” she said.

To that end, Heller called out the challenge facing department stores in reporting quarterly earnings and defining success based off of sales by square footage. And, as is often the case in discussion on the future of retail, the conversation turned toward Amazon. Stephen considered its recent testing of a checkout-free physical grocery store to be “the store of the future.”

Heller countered that, unlike publicly traded brands, “Amazon has the luxury that none of the other retailers do,” she said. “They can innovate without producing revenue. We are legally responsible to shareholders to do something quarter by quarter so it makes it difficult to have that long view.

“Retailers are being told to act like a start-up, to fail fast. But [retailers] don’t have that luxury,” she said. “It’s tough to be a visionary when you aren’t allowed to see far.”

In the near future, a few themes were popular among the speakers: The value of human engagement, the pressure on companies like Sears to stay afloat, fewer physical store locations and different models such as pop-ups and showrooms with a more “edited” assortment.