The moment I entered the Aria Hotel Conference Center last Monday morning, I began to feel it. The sentiment intensified over the next two-and-a-half days, and accompanied me home to New York where it managed to brighten my whole weekend.
It was something I hadn’t felt in a very long time: hope for the industry.
Yes, you heard me right. The Shoptalk conference, whose inaugural “Next Gen Commerce” event was held in Las Vegas last week, managed to make an optimist out of even curmudgeonly me.
But how could I not get excited? I was spending the better part of four days with 3,000 fired-up young professionals, the vast majority of whom were in their 20s and 30s, full of innovative ideas to jumpstart the retail business.
I know I can, at times, take a dark view of the industry’s outlook. But with traditional retail sales, earnings and traffic sliding for the past 18 months, and the relentless promotional “race to the bottom” by department, specialty, discount and e-commerce stores, you can hardly blame me. It’s difficult to imagine a way out of this mess.
Many traditional retail CEOs share my concern. They confess they don’t know how to reach new consumers or approach this convergence of technology and commerce that will characterize retail going forward. They bemoan a leadership void in the business. The old guard knows the business and the products; they are the merchants. How will they impart that knowledge to tomorrow’s leaders, the young upstarts who grew up with a smart phone in their hands? How will they find capable young people passionate about retail who want to come into the business?
They needn’t worry. What I saw and heard at Shoptalk 2016 gave me immense confidence that the talent is out there. But it won’t be found in traditional management training programs. It’s cutting its teeth at Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Then it’s moving into an apartment with five other people and launching a disruptive startup, raising tens of millions in venture capital, and learning firsthand what it takes to develop a customer-centric business model. Because unlike in the old days, when you had to take your idea to the Saks buyer to get launched, these entrepreneurs are taking it to the ultimate gatekeeper: the consumer. And make no mistake about it, they’re learning about product, business and merchandising along the way.
And they’re not all doing it with high-tech gadgets. Michelle Lam of True & Co. is disrupting the intimate apparel business with a subscription service that provides women with bras that fit. It doesn’t do it with a hand-held scanner, but with a 15-question survey that takes two minutes to complete online.
Some of them do it with not much more than chutzpah and a humorous video. Michael Dubin took on the CPG giants and has grown his Dollar Shave Club sales to $240 million in three years by empowering men to take control of their own grooming.
The Honest Company’s self-effacing Brian Lee, who calls himself a “normal guy,” except that he builds startups with celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Jessica Alba, said he didn’t know anything about retail when Target first approached him, wanting to carry the company’s line of chemical-free personal care products.
Many of these disruptors said that their biggest challenge is learning how to scale without compromising innovation and fun. How do you keep changing, or being as one presenter put it, “the company that puts your company out of business?” Many of them are now opening physical stores, pop-ups or shop-in-shops to do just that. They can learn a lot about physical retailing from those who’ve been doing it for 30 years.
And I know what you’re thinking, because I still think about it, even after this incredible event full of great new ideas. So, I’ll say it for you. Most of these start-ups are not making any money and will eventually disappear. However, while they are still alive, innovation is the core of their DNA, and I learned more in those two –and-a-half days than I have over the past couple years.
In the days since the conference, my inbox has been exploding with emails from colleagues and readers blown away by how great the conference was. Many said it was the best such event they had ever attended in terms of being able to actually interact and learn, particularly from all the tech-driven innovative, entrepreneurial businesses that presented there.
I’ve gotten an equal amount from others, including many C-level traditional retail execs who were kicking themselves for not following my advice to take the trip to Las Vegas.
Shoptalk’s unique ability to bring these two parallel universes together and to actually integrate them is what will no doubt tip the scales in future years. Shoptalk delivers on its promise to lead the commerce dialogue, to bring together these old and new worlds to create a new retail paradigm.
When I mentioned the under-represented traditional sector to Anil Aggarwal, co-founder of Shoptalk (who, along with his partner Jonathan Weiner, also founded the Money 20/20 Conference), he said he’d been approached by many attendees from retailers that only sent one or two people this year: “They’ve already decided they need to substantially increase their presence at next year’s Shoptalk after realizing the importance of the unique audience that Shoptalk draws and the significance of the dialogue we’re leading.”
Retail is not dying. It is, however, going through a massive transformation, one that will separate winners from losers in our over-stored world. The only path to survival is change, and the integration of old and new into a future marketplace characterized by agility, conviction, service, open-mindedness and the ability to continuously deliver a superior customer experience.
Ten years from now, at Shoptalk 2026, while presenters are discussing the latest technology that lets a person design a product in her head that is then brought to her by drone a few seconds later, and robots are serving each attendee a customized snack that fits his or her individual taste profiles, older executives will be heard reminiscing, Woodstock-style, about the first Shoptalk:
“We were there.”