Terry J. Lundgren

TUCSON, Ariz. — Terry J. Lundgren is forever the student, for years sitting at the front of the room taking notes at the annual Global Retailing Conference to bring back to the Macy’s team. 

“Now I’m thinking about, ‘I’m going to have these notes, I’ve got to figure out what to do with them,’” he said Thursday morning to chuckles from the audience in his address kicking off the conference put on by the University of Arizona and the Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing, which takes place here through Friday. 

The conference, now in its 22nd year, has come to serve as an exchange of ideas on what’s next for the industry, with this year’s theme “Reimagining Retail, Breakthrough Insights” focused on customer engagement. Over the course of the next two days, a mix of executives hailing from various industries are set to speak, including Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. founder, executive chair and chief creative officer Kenneth Cole; Yum! Brands Inc. chief executive officer Greg Creed; former Neiman Marcus ceo Karen Katz; Story founder and ceo Rachel Shechtman; Google Americas head of industry and mobile apps Jonathan Pelosi; Hilton senior vice president and global head of customer engagement, loyalty and partnerships Mark Weinstein, and Macy’s Inc. chief marketing officer Rich Lennox. 

The conference is also a bridge between industry leaders and the next generation of retail executives with University of Arizona students present and engaging in discourse over the next two days with industry professionals.

“We’re moving now from the digital into a consolidation of digital science, biological science and physical science,” said University of Arizona president Dr. Robert Robbins. “This is all going to be about data. This is all going to be about why people do what people do.” 

The future will also be about redefining and refining how retailers use that data. 

“You all have a ton of data, but do you use it?” Mastercard senior vice president of market insights Sarah Quinlan asked the audience during the conference’s early morning session Thursday. 

Bridging that raft of information to be able to deliver better customer experiences is what will be the keys to success moving forward, Lundgren stressed, referencing Federated Department Stores Inc.’s 2005 acquisition of the May Department Stores Company as an example of the importance and balance that needs to be struck between having a national brand and being able to speak to customers at a hyper-localized level. 

“The real reason behind that [purchase] was because we didn’t feel like there was a national fashion retailer,” he said. “Acquiring May Co. allowed us to fill in the real estate in the middle of the country.” 

The expanded footprint was key, but how to then communicate at the individual store level would be integral to future success, Lundgren pointed out. 

“We didn’t have the sophistication and technology back in 2005….We did have a vision for communicating to local markets,” he said. “Today, with technology, we can get down to a very micro level.” 

Lundgren also went on to outline eight key questions he hopes will be addressed during the conference’s run, including how industry leaders are using technology and marketing to deliver continuous improvement, how the industry is reacting to shifting demographics and how the industry is differentiating beyond price.

On that last note, Lundgren said, “I’ve said forever: when price becomes the reason for consumers to buy a brand, it’s just a matter of time for that brand to deteriorate. This is such a critical piece.” 

And while Lundgren acknowledged the challenges ahead, he also said this is a time when the most learnings can be gleaned, likening it to what he experienced during the Great Recession or, on a more personal note, when his father cut him off financially while a student at the University of Arizona because he was “goofing” off too much and not focusing on his grades. 

“When my back is to the wall, I find that’s when I get going and I think I can learn a lot,” he said. “Our industry’s had our back to the wall for the last couple years….There will be winners that will emerge from this time. I’m positive of that. They’re sitting in this room, but to do that we have to answer these eight questions.”