Shoptalk

LAS VEGAS — Lots of back patting was indeed in order with the annual retail conference Shoptalk now capped.

Everyone’s gotten the memo that it’s old school to look at businesses in siloed channels — one allocated to e-commerce and the other to physical — and that the customer is now the ringmaster driving how business is done. Nothing earthshattering there, although they were points certainly hammered in throughout Shoptalk’s four-day run at the Venetian Las Vegas. The conference’s venue changed from the past two years at the Aria Las Vegas, but so had the mood in an indication of where the industry’s mind-set is.

“As you can see, we’ve moved through a period of disruptive change, which was 2016 and 2017 and are now squarely in the new norm,” said Anil Aggarwal, Shoptalk founder, chairman and chief executive officer, in his opening remarks on day one of this year’s conference. “The primary characteristic of this new normal is that disruption is not reactive….The new normal isn’t about if or why. It’s about who, what, why, when and how. The new normal is a time in the industry when everyone must educate and inform themselves about the latest technologies that inform their business.”

In fact, the inaugural Shoptalk in 2016 was a real nail biter with digital disruption the overused phrase and attendees looking to speakers for clarity on where the industry was going in talks given by Ron Johnson as he reflected on mistakes of the past and opportunities of the future, Honest Co. cofounder Brian Lee on influencer marketing and Westfield Corp. proclaiming it was going after a PropTech transformation. Last year saw the industry mull marketplaces and the continued lamenting of the Amazon factor.

Macy’s Inc. ceo Jeff Gennette, buoyed by the green shoots seen so far in the retailer’s turnaround strategy, proclaimed at the conference, “We’re moving faster; we’re working smarter. We’re in the early innings, but we’re headed into 2018 with momentum.”

Target, fresh off December’s $550 million acquisition of online grocery delivery provider Shipt, gave the push ceo Brian Cornell needed to deliver a keynote that was all about the guest experience and a big boast that the purchase was done “with the goal of becoming the first retailer to offer same-day delivery nationwide.”

In short, if a customer wants to come into Target for toilet paper and leave the store with $100 worth of goods, the stores remain. If they want to shop online, there’s the site.

“Our guests don’t want to have to make choices or tradeoffs,” Cornell said. “What they want are options. They love to shop. Our job is to make it easier than ever.”

It’s those things in aggregate Target hopes will help it edge past Walmart and Amazon.

Target's Brian Cornell

Target’s Brian Cornell  Courtesy Photo

“If customers like it” seems to be the new philosophy and the new metric retailers are operating off of today — or at least that’s what they were telling themselves in Vegas.

Amazon Go executives, when pressed to discuss their new cashier-less store, opened in January in Seattle, and how they are measuring the door’s success pointed to customers.

“Do customers like what we’re offering? Do they like the price that we’re offering it at?” Gianna Puerini, Amazon Go vice president, said in referencing what factors the company is using as metrics for success. She confirmed after that that Amazon is studying all the other typical metrics traditional retailers also measure.

Customers also have a way of driving activity at Nike Inc.

“Our service model is simple: Make consumers feel loved by Nike. Period,” the company’s chief digital officer Adam Sussman said.

Nike continues to leverage work on the machine learning side in a bid to personalize consumers’ interaction with the brand. The company’s membership program, NikePlus, now counts more than 100 million with that number expected to more than triple over the next five years, according to Sussman.

With that member base, the company can engage — make more product recommendations tailored to a specific user through conversational commerce, resulting in higher conversions. The conversation may begin online or via an app, with further action taking place in Nike stores with the pick up.

It’s why retailers such as Nordstrom see no point in delineating between e-commerce and brick-and-mortar, nordstrom.com president Ken Worzel pointed out, adding the company is moving toward not reporting e-commerce and store performance as separate numbers. He cited the example of online returns: They’re free but 65 percent of those returns get walked back into a physical store.

“They [customers] don’t want to see the boundaries in our business,” Worzel said.

Billy May, ceo of Sur La Table who shared the stage with Worzel on a Shoptalk panel, echoed the sentiment saying, “It’s increasingly a distraction to do the accounting that way” and offered an adage he adheres to: “Don’t make company problems, customer problems.”

Nordstrom Local, at 3,000 square feet on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, is a good example of a back-to-basics, consumer-centric strategy, with no product under the roof. Instead, it’s about offering services, such as tailoring or styling. So far the retailer has seen healthy engagement, to hear Worzel describe it.

“Hyperlocal works,” Worzel said, adding those who are really utilizing Nordstrom Local tend to be those who live within three miles of the door and are able to simply walk in.

And while some are all for sales just being sales, regardless of their point of origin, why not also throw out the word “channel,” said Coach brand president Joshua Schulman.

“The customer isn’t waking up and saying, ‘I’m going to shop this channel,’” Schulman said. “That is industry jargon that is really outdated.”

With all the hysteria of the past few years wrought on by the Internet and born-online brands, there’s also the silver lining — the rose-colored lenses much of the industry now appears to be looking through.

“There’s been a lot of headlines about the retail apocalypse,” Worzel said. “In periods of disruptions there are a lot of losers and there are a lot of outsized winners….There’s not going to be just one retail option in five years.”

Indeed, new brands are identifying opportunity and shooting into the market at an ever-quickening rate. In just three and a half years, Glossier went from indie upstart to Millennial makeup giant, thanks to pinpointing a gap in the beauty business.

glossier beauty emily weiss shoptalk

Glossier ceo Emily Weiss at Shoptalk 2018 in Las Vegas.  Adriana Lee

“Marketing/advertising engines ran the fuel of making their customers feel like constant beginners, like they weren’t the ultimate experts of what works for them,” said Emily Weiss, Glossier’s founder and ceo.

She set out to create a different kind of company — one that would understand the value of listening to women and empower their customers, instead of dictating to them — and banked on fans to spread the word. The Internet and social media channels like Instagram, which acted as the launchpad of her company, turned out to be massive platforms for her message. Glossier’s recent Series D round was a powerful validation of her point of view and approach, pouring $52 million of funding into the brand.

Though retail may be reaching an inflection point that’s equal parts exciting and unnerving, thanks to new technologies, it doesn’t mean that tech-fueled start-up are the only ones poised to succeed. Walmart’s e-commerce strategy seeks out the new opportunities, talent and content that new contenders bring to the table, absorbing them into their ranks. And according to Marc Lore, president and ceo of Walmart’s U.S. e-commerce division, he and his big-box chain plan have no plans to stop.

“We’re looking at and talking to more companies now than we ever had,” he said. “So we’re definitely in acquisition mode.” Lore, founder of Jet.com, and Bonobos founder and ceo Andy Dunn, now Walmart’s senior vice president of digital consumer brands, both represent new blood for the company’s growing brand portfolio and executive team. Together, they’re on a startup shopping spree focused on digital-first businesses and new target customers, like urban Millennials.

Shoptalk Walmart Marc Lore Andy Dunn

Walmart executives Marc Lore (center) and Andy Dunn (left) — founders of acquired businesses Jet.com and Bonobos, respectively — talk mergers and acquisitions strategy at Shoptalk in Las Vegas with moderator Jason Del Rey of Recode.  Adriana Lee

The theme seemed particularly timely, considering L’Oréal’s announcement last week that it bought Modiface, one of the leading beauty AR providers. With one acquisition, one of the world’s top beauty brands now owns tech that’s shipping inside the Samsung Galaxy S9, the flagship phone of the world’s largest smartphone maker.

Acquisitions aren’t the only horse in the race to innovation. EBay is doubling down on development efforts. Scott Cutler, senior vice president Americas, and Jan Pedersen, chief scientist of AI, spoke to the crucial role of artificial intelligence in shaping the way people shop and sell using everything from chatbots to personalization. Meanwhile RJ Pittman, senior vice president and chief product officer, manned the exhibit hall booth, showcasing a new augmented reality feature that uses a smartphone camera to help sellers find the right shipping box.

But such pragmatic features only scratch the surface. Consider computer vision, for example, Pittman said. In order for a machine to understand and contextualize, say, a blouse, it has to recognize it, distinguish it from others, perhaps understand the nature of the fabric based on what it knows about silk or cotton, and more. It takes data for machines to identify, categorize and even build on what it thinks it knows, and express that in a way that’s useful to consumers. Now consider eBay’s massive data and image coffers and their exponential growth.

“It’s not only billions of images that we have in the eBay catalogue, not just today, but over the last 20 years,” Pittman told WWD. “We have loads of meta data — descriptions of all the items, including the color, the texture and the item’s type of material, as well as precise dimensions of these things in the physical space that, when you put all of those together, you kind of have a nice understanding of objects and all their properties. You could bring them to life in these virtual spaces.”

ebay AR tech

EBay helps sellers choose USPS flat rate shipping boxes using augmented reality.  Courtesy photo

The retail “apocalypse” scenario that has had business leaders fretting is looking less like Armageddon and more like reinvention. Newer brands, armed with new tools and strategies, may be swarming the scene, hoping to own their corner of the market. But it’s clear that some existing companies have deep advantages that are nearly impossible to fake or replicate.

In the AI era, when algorithms are all the rage and innovation can be measured by the validity — and size — of a company’s data, older organizations with vast stores of information going back years, decades or even generations sit on buried treasure. The savviest executives are reaching for new tech tools like shovels, hoping to unearth its secrets.

But there’s also a cautionary tale in the mix. Right before the show got under way, Facebook landed in the headlines again, drawing fire over how it manages people’s data. In other words, even the technology giants struggle to balance the nuances and unforeseen risks in managing people’s data. For young companies and legacy brands alike, the challenges in this new future of data-powered retail may be even steeper. Being ready to tackle that will take the right mix of talent, perspective and goals.

For Stitch Fix, there’s a formula. “First and foremost, we organize around autonomy, mastery and purpose,” said Lisa Bougie, general manager of Stitch Fix Women. The company, which employs 85 data scientists, sees artificial intelligence and machine learning as its fuel, but people are the spark — especially when they’re free to focus on what they’re good at and solve problems that the tech can’t.

stitch fix shoptalk

Moderator Bernardine Wu (left), ceo of FitForCommerce, and Lisa Bougie (right), general manager of Stitch Fix Women.  Adriana Lee

“[It’s] a fundamental belief that humans and machines are better together,” she said, to a room of nodding attendees at one of the last sessions of the conference. It was a hopeful note conveying a much-needed sense of optimism.

Retail is, as it has always been, a pursuit that draws from and serves people. The tools may have changed, but the essence of the business remains the same. And that’s comforting, familiar ground to stand on.