At the National Retail Federation’s Big Show at the Jacob Javitz Convention Center, which ended on Wednesday, several key themes emerged, including: physical versus digital – it seems the most enlightened retailers don’t make a distinction between the two; cross-border selling, seen as a remedy for declining U.S. sales; data sharing across disciplines to enhance customer experience; and there was the ever-present specter of, looming over the conference.

“Mobile traffic for the first time is exceeding store traffic, and gaining rapid share from desktop traffic but mobile traffic has a much lower conversion rate. So one of the big challenges in 2016 and beyond is going to be to convert mobile traffic at a higher rate. It’s now become mission critical for retail,” said Ken Seiff, managing partner of Beanstalk Ventures, who suggested having native apps, which are faster and use Apple Pay, introducing “buy” buttons gaining acceptance in social media, and generally, creating more of a bridge between online and in-store. “If you can book an appointment at the genius bar online you should be able to book a personal shopping appointment online. Most retailers can’t do that today.”

Mike Ullman, executive chairman of J.C. Penney Co., defended the department store, citing a study by Accenture that found that 75 percent of respondents considered the store to be a centerpiece of their experience. One-hundred percent went online before going to a store.

“We may not have as many locations,” said Ullman, who won the NRF gold medal award. “Customers may not come as frequently as they used to, but they’re coming better informed.” Providing products and services consumers can’t get elsewhere is key. “We have a hair-salon business,” he said. “You can’t get your hair cut online.”

Ullman sees Amazon as “huge competition. We have a $1 billion brand, Arizona. It will not be on Amazon. I sense they’re a little predatory with their pricing. The investment community isn’t holding them to brick-and-mortar standards.”

Neil Stern, senior partner at Ebeltoft USA/McMillanDoolittle gave a whirlwind overview of innovative retailers around the world, citing among others:

  • Muji, for “wonderful product, great visual display coupled with classroom activities and cafes.”
  • T2, from Australia, for making “tea accessible to everyone, with coordinated product and store design” and a range of subtle, unexpected flavors and aromas from around the world.
  • Made U.K., for progressing from an online pure-play with more than 5,000 furniture items to a showroom format that uses virtual reality for selling.
  • Starbucks Roasters, which presents “an experiential wonderland” revolving around coffee.
  • Markthal, in Rotterdam, which brings together food and food services, local food artisans in a covered food market shaped like a giant arch.
  • Electro Mart, from South Korea, which has created a store that is essentially a man-cave for televisions, appliances, drones and collectible figures.
  • EchoPark, in Denver, for integrating technology into used-car shopping, where you select cars online and then they are presented to you in a showroom.
  • Whole Foods, which in Brooklyn, N.Y., created a sustainable store with solar panels, a roof garden and lots of local artisans.
  • Lunettes Pour Tous, from France, which sells glasses custom-made in 10 minutes and for $10.

There was also a presentation by Toys “R” Us discussing the chain’s accelerating shop-in-shop approach, such as with cycle shops and shops displaying the hottest toys; and by Vigga, a start-up providing a circular subscription model for sustainable children’s wear. Parents pay a $50 monthly subscription to buy and return children’s clothes that get recycled up to seven times before being discarded. “This is a meaningful alternative to a mindless throwaway society,” said Vigga Svensson, cofounder and ceo of Vigga.

Leslie Ghize, executive vice president of Tobe, discussed evolving trends and the changing consumer mind-set, citing:

  • “Odd branding couplings” such as Carlsberg beer selling men’s grooming products, or McDonald’s and Burger King collaborating on a “McWhopper.” Apparently, Ghize said, “McDonald’s declined on that offer.”
  • More brands and personalities becoming more important to fewer people. “Niche groups and smaller fan groups are meaningful,” Ghize said.
  • An emerging “care culture” where “people are becoming more comfortable wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Whether it’s superfan obsessions that cause reboots of long-dormant shows or products…it’s cool to care.
  • Uniform is the new uniform, where “a cultural melting pot breeds an aesthetic sameness,” so people establish their identities through “squad uniformity” or linking with others on style and products, such as all riding the same kind of bicycles.
  • Wearables, where there’s “room to romance.”
  • Consumers in control, where “rebellion and revolution are in the air as technology allows for new ways to speak (tweet) out and consumers outsmart the brands they once bowed down to. From black-on-black antagonistic design to special-ops fitness classes, consumers are becoming everyday soldiers. Fists up, civilians don’t let anything past them, whether it’s fighting for a sneaker or prepping for a bacterial apocalypse.”

Sir Charlie Mayfield, chairman of John Lewis Partnership, which operates the John Lewis and Waitrose brands in the U.K., spoke during a session with Steven Lowy, co-ceo of Westfield. “We’re going to see a pretty dramatic reduction of retail space going forward,” Mayfield said, adding, “40 percent of our sales are done online and 80 percent of our best customers shop both channels.”

“I’m not scared of Amazon,” Mayfield added. “Retailers have got to be better than Amazon on their own strengths. We need data to understand our customers – and how to be powerful against the might of Amazon.”

A session on global shopping behavior highlighted the power of Asian markets, with David Roth, ceo of the Store, WPP, noting that China accounts for 35 percent of global purchases. He cited giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent and said, “Singles Day is a market that created its own momentum. Alibaba sold $14.3 billion in sales on Nov. 11.

“If you’re not engaged in cross-border selling, you’re leaving money on the table,” said Jordan Sweetnam, evp of seller experience at eBay, which counts 159 million buyers globally, 800 million active listings and has racked up a 20 percent annual compound growth rate for cross-border selling. “Ebay takes the friction out of cross-border selling,” he added. “We have new technical capabilities. The marketplace has data that knows what’s selling where.”

Ryan Miller, vice president of global e-commerce strategy at Rakuten, put the cross-border commerce benefits this way: “Domestic sales in the U.S. are slowing by 30 percent,” he said, encouraging international newbies to use a marketplace rather than launch a Web site. “You get immediate trust from the customer and integrated local payment,” he said.

Jim Brewster, ceo of Venus Fashion, said 1 billion people will shop across borders this year. The most popular country from which to purchase goods is the U.S., with 45 percent, followed by the U.K., 37 percent.

Nike, which is looking for digital sales of $7 billion in 2020, is broadening its assortment online, and taking to Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, Chile and Mexico. Shoes are customizable with Nike ID, digital printing is coming to the U.S., and a new SNRKS app with simplified e-commerce, displays the latest shoe drops.

Disruption is impacting many retail sections, including watches. “We’re betting big on convergence of fashion and technology,” John White, evp of Fossil Group said, referring to wearables. Fossil introduced a smart watch in partnership with Intel and Google, and acquired Misfit Wearables. White is eyeing the $15 billion wearables market, which will reach $45 billion in five years.

Kevin A. Plank, founder, chairman and ceo of Under Armour stressed the idea of storytelling in this high-tech age. The brand started with a story. When Plank played high school football all he could wear was a flannel shirt under his uniform when it got cold outside. The compression fabric he discovered “changed the way athletes dress,” he said. Plank is adding another layer to Under Armour products, connected fitness technology, where the wearer taps his wrist to get readings of vital signs or other metrics. “It’s a digital dashboard for your health,” Plank said.

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