PARIS — While the future of retail lies in growing personalization, brick-and-mortar stores will continue to play a key role in the relationship between vendors and customers, attendees at the World Retail Congress here heard.

With smartphone users now totaling 1.5 billion worldwide, online advertising is set to overtake TV advertising in the next few years, making access to detailed customer data increasingly important.

Mindy Grossman, chief executive officer of HSN Inc., noted the network had just completed phase one of a three-year system transformation with IBM that will allow it to collect not just transactional data from its 59 million customers, but also behavioral information.

“We’re competing with content, we’re competing with media, we’re competing for attention from the consumer, so everything we do has to create a 360-degree network of experiences that are going to surround the consumer and make them want to come to us,” she said. 

“The key to insight is to create meaning and use technology to really understand and customize and personalize your relationship with the customer, and it really is a strategic tool in today’s world,” added Grossman, one of the speakers at the conference, held Oct. 7 to 9 at the CNIT center in the La Défense business district.

Olivier Mathiot, cofounder and vice president of marketing and communication at PriceMinister, said the French Internet marketplace has adopted its Japanese parent company Rakuten’s slogan “Shopping Is Entertainment.”

“Our users are much more demanding. Every day, they expect much more from the e-commerce experience,” he said. “E-shopping is only part of this global digital life, and that’s really part of Rakuten’s DNA from now on, because we have to match this very high expectation.”

Martha Stewart, founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, said Web sites like Pinterest act like an instant mirror of customers’ tastes, providing invaluable feedback for advertisers. “I think we’ll see people editing their choices more and more,” she predicted.

Speakers emphasized that the explosive growth of online retailing need not sound the death knell for traditional stores.

In a poll of more than 150 senior retailers conducted for the World Retail Congress, 68 percent said bricks-and-mortar remained the most important channel for shoppers, even though the majority saw a rise in Internet sales in the last year.

Fifty-five percent of those surveyed planned to increase the number of their international stores, with one in three set to boost their overall store footprint, according to the survey by the Australian Center for Retail Studies at Monash University, conducted in August 2013.

Mark Lewis, online director at John Lewis, said the British retailer plans to open a store inside Terminal 2 of London’s Heathrow airport in a bid to boost its visibility and branding, as it mulls expanding its footprint from its existing 39 U.K. stores.

At the same time, John Lewis is making it increasingly easy for customers to use their mobile devices in its stores. It provides free Wi-Fi and has designed mobile applications allowing customers to scan items and have instant access to ratings, reviews and richer product information.

“The stores have a huge role in the shopping experience. They have a huge role for inspiration, they have a huge role for demonstrating product, and they have a huge role for introducing new products to customers,” Lewis said. “It would be a mistake [to think] that that will all fade away. We see a very important role for stores in the future.”

Likewise, Carrefour chairman and ceo Georges Plassat said stores were far from obsolete. “I’m totally convinced that click-and-mortar is the future,” he said. “The key point is to make these stores interesting, efficient and really serving the interests of our customers.”

To that end, he recommended retailers tailor formats to regional tastes.

“Retailers will need to keep a careful watch out for nontraditional competitors including attackers like Peapod, Amazon and others, and even consumer goods companies. Tracking, analyzing and monetizing customer data will become increasingly important,” Plassat said.

Yves Carcelle, former chairman and ceo of Louis Vuitton, said that while he once defended the idea of a single store concept worldwide, he believes this approach no longer matches luxury customers’ expectations either.

“The biggest danger for our industry would be to have customers being bored to see not only the same brands in all the malls of the world, in all the department stores of the world, but to see every time the same concept,” he warned.

“At a moment where we see that customers are more and more interested in customization, in personalization, I think what is true for the product has to be somehow true also for the retail,” added Carcelle, who continues to work with luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton as a retail consultant.

One key question for retailers will be how they react to a decline in the number of people who drive, said Ira Kalish, director of global economics and consumer business at Deloitte Consulting.

“We’ve never seen this before in the modern era,” he said. “[This] has profound implications for retailers in terms of where they locate stores, what mix do they have between store and nonstore retailing, what mix they have between suburban and high street retailing, how they go to market, what they say to consumers to get them to get into a car and drive to the store.”

Meanwhile, Millard “Mickey” Drexler, chairman and chief executive officer J. Crew Group Inc., dismissed the industry talk about omnichannel retailing and its obsession with social media. “It’s been a challenging year and will continue to be so. There’s no solutions out there, in a sense,” the outspoken executive opined.

“There’s not enough product discussion. You can’t talk about growing your business by having an omnichannel — customers don’t even know what the word means. It’s an ‘inside the bubble’ term, and we just talk about growing the business with hopefully having product the customers like and delivering it in a more timely way.”

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