The changing nature of shopping in the modern era works in two directions — bringing legacy brands into the 21st century and powering new ideas and business models. And at Salesforce last week, executives like Chip Bergh of Levi Strauss & Co. and Rent the Runway’s Jennifer Hyman discussed the shifting state of retail today.
In a moment during a Thursday session, Bergh railed against notions that physical retail is dying. He noted that Levi’s, a brand that goes back more than a century and a half, began as a brick-and-mortar operation. Today, “we have about 3,000 stores to balance our franchise stores…retail’s not dying,” he said, but added that it does need to adapt in a shifting landscape.
Indeed, all facets of retail need to evolve, and those adaptations include everything from experiential retail to immerse shoppers to enabling more personalization.
The days of shoppers following big trends as a collective crowd are changing, he added. Consumers want “something that makes it unique,” Bergh added. “Personalization, customization — everyone wants something a little bit different [from] their best friend.”
Hyman agrees. “That’s actually been one of the major changes for fashion over the past 20 years, if you think about it,” said the 37-year-old fashion executive. “Fifteen to 20 years ago, every woman in this country was wearing a Juicy sweatsuit. And she wanted to look like everyone else. And now, because of social media and Instagram, everyone has become their own brand. They want to look like no one else, and they want to put together uniqueness. So brands that enable you to personalize to that audience of one are doing fabulous things.”
For others, there’s quite some ground to make up. According to Salesforce’s latest Shopper-First Retailing report, 64 percent of shoppers believe that retailers don’t truly know them.
These days, the engine that often drives personalization in retail is artificial intelligence. Retailers are increasingly looking to platforms like Salesforce to help them capture and crunch customer data, so they know how to appeal to different tastes and preferences, whether in the real or digital world.
“Commerce now and in the future will be completely powered by AI,” Salesforce’s Mike Micucci, chief executive officer of Commerce Cloud, told WWD. “This is, this is where it’s going.” He pointed to the company’s holiday predictions, which emphasized the growing important of smartphones driving commerce activity. “If [so much activity with] holiday shopping is going to go through this phone, you can’t do it without AI,” he said. “You can’t shape the personal experience. You can’t shape what the shopper needs.”
One thing that shoppers need more than ever is to trust and believe in their favorite brands. Aside from the sales value that Nike created from its now-infamous campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, it has also nabbed social mind share that has generated $43 million’s worth of buzz.
“Consumers, especially younger consumers, want to attach themselves to brands that share their values,” Bergh said. “I like to say, you know, they want value and they want your values. And so what a brand stands for today is becoming increasingly more important. You cannot just stand on the sidelines in today’s world and not be a brand that’s got some soldiers.”
That’s a complete reversal of conventional corporate wisdom, which steered clear of controversial matters. Having spoken out about gun control, Bergh, who was wearing a denim jacket featuring the words “The Future Is Voting,” knows this all too well.
“Even 10 years ago, the notion of the ceo of Levi Strauss getting involved in a debate over gun control or the ceo of Delta Air Lines getting involved in a debate over gun control…we now have so many examples of this,” Bergh added. “You say if it’s a controversial issue that’s not directly relevant to my bottom line, I don’t want to be anywhere near it. So something big has changed in the way people think.”
For Rent the Runway’s Hyman, the matter goes beyond good public relations. “We have a lot of choices as customers, so you’re going to put your dollars behind a company that exemplifies your values,” she said, “[and] you’re going to put your time as an employee behind a company that exemplifies your values.”
Think of it as another facet of modern retail. While brands assess new tools and market pressures, it’s becoming increasingly clear that old models can’t account for an increasingly complex world. It takes more than creating a storefront, designing a nice display and throwing open the doors to battle the likes of e-commerce titans like Amazon.
Speaking of which, when asked if it was friend or foe, Levi’s Bergh remarked, “Yes.” It was a comedic moment, but given his acknowledgement that the marketplace powers more sales than Levi’s own retail channels, it was impossible to ignore the searing truth in that simple word.
Among all the considerations that brands, old and new, must weigh today, it may be one of the most important. And that, for the foreseeable future, may be changing at all.