With the next Shoptalk fast approaching, I sat down with Anil Aggarwal and Zia Daniell Wigder from the Shoptalk team for the first of a series of weekly interviews I’ll be publishing leading up to the March 3-6, 2019 event.
We discussed Shoptalk and the role it plays in helping create the future of retail, and I had a Zen-like realization: Shoptalk isn’t an “events company,” it’s a tech company. If you’ve attended Shoptalk, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just the ultimate version of the typical kinds of events we’re all used to attending.
So, what’s the big deal?
There’s a lot more to the success of Shoptalk than its ability to predict the digital disruption of retail when others failed to see it coming; line up the best speakers; lead the industry narrative by bringing new and old retail innovators center stage; facilitate industry-wide collaboration; and engage a community of disruptors with clever, provocative marketing.
There’s the Shoptalk technology. And not just any technology. Shoptalk is building the kind of sophisticated technology that engineers recruited out of Google build. This tech-centric approach is natural for entrepreneurial Aggarwal. He sold his last tech company, TxVia, to Google in 2012, which he then joined to help launch Google’s payments product — Google Pay.
Why tech for an event?
Today, the largest team working on creating the ultimate Shoptalk attendee experience is an engineering team. The team is writing hundreds of thousands of lines of code to make its big show (the largest conference in the retail industry, actually) feel small, collaborative and intimate. This is a unique approach as most other events write exactly zero lines of code and some even take pride in just being “big”.
Why is tech important? If you write your own code, you create and own the experience it enables. Shoptalk’s tech focuses on workflows, applications, portals, algorithms and other capabilities that create highly-personalized experiences. You heard that right — just as retailers are embracing personalization to improve experiences for their customers, Shoptalk is doing exactly that for its attendees. It seems pretty obvious that events need personalization as desperately as retailers do to improve the customer experience.
That’s why Shoptalk is better defined as a retail tech company, and that’s also why it’s the fastest-growing retail event in history (zero to 8,000+ attendees in less than 36 months). As I have said over and over, the retail industry needs to evolve to serve a vastly different consumer, and there is no better way to do that than investing in the ongoing knowledge and capabilities of your teams. That’s what Shoptalk allows you to do in unprecedented ways.
Aggarwal and Wigder shared two examples of the long list of things they are building.
Powering 9,000+ One-to-One Meetings
Earlier this year, Shoptalk implemented its Hosted Retailers & Brands Program to facilitate one-to-one meetings between retailers and sponsors — meetings that help retailers find new solutions and that help suppliers generate new leads. Shoptalk and its new sister event, Groceryshop, combined facilitated over 9,000 one-to-one onsite meetings this year, and Aggarwal and Wigder expect that number to grow to over 15,000 next year.
“Most events operate like it’s still 1995,” Aggarwal told me. “Exhibitors stand at booths waiting for people to walk past hoping to sell them something. In the age of technology, that’s like waiting for a cab when you can use Uber or Lyft.”
So, Shoptalk built a tech platform to connect thousands of individuals from hundreds of retailers and sponsors with each other based on their specific needs and preferences. The platform includes portals and workflows that gather, categorize and convey data; it also has algorithms that match companies and schedule meetings. The software generates all necessary email and text communications, including sending calendar invites. An automated feedback loop ensures engagement and ongoing refinement. The system also ensures that all of the meetings take place over just four hours, guaranteeing that participants don’t miss a single speaker or session on the agenda. They aren’t kidding around: this is a significant investment to optimize the attendee experience, and not something that’s available off-the-shelf.
The result is not only the retail industry’s largest meetings program ever (anywhere in the world), but also a much higher-quality Exhibit Hall experience. Aggarwal explains, “Because our sponsors are able to lock in quality meetings in advance of our events, retailers walking past booths are no longer harassed and don’t have to turn their badges around the way they do at other events. That creates a better experience for the exhibitors we do have, and a friendly and welcoming Exhibit Hall for retailers.”
The number of retailers and brands participating in the program increased substantially from approximately 250 at Shoptalk 2017 to 1,000 at Shoptalk 2018 — and the number continues to grow. Already, 800 participants have signed up for Shoptalk 2019. The industry response has been what you’d expect when you solve a longstanding industry problem that has persisted unabated: the NPS of the program was an impressive 60 this year.
Curating Peer-to-Peer Connections for 1,000+ Retailers
Shoptalk’s mission to intelligently connect people for collaborations is pervasive. Shoptalk recently announced the launch of Tabletalks, which are interactive peer-to-peer roundtables of five to eight individuals from retailers and brands created to facilitate deep-dive discussions and learnings.
“We believe that retailers have much to learn from each other and we’re now allowing them to do just that at large scale and with an accuracy that’s only achievable with proprietary software programmed with the right business rules,” said Wigder. “Tabletalks facilitate an unprecedented industry collaboration and continue to help move the industry away from the unhealthy cliques that have plagued it for so long–including those based on outdated definitions of ecommerce and digital.”
Tabletalks participants are matched using Shoptalk’s sophisticated proprietary technology and personalization algorithms that ensure brands and retailers derive the most benefit from these conversations. While they won’t give away all their secrets, Aggarwal and Wigder did tell me that the technology creates each Tabletalk group through a variety of different dimensions, including type and size of brand or retailer, job title and seniority, interest in and familiarity with a range of discussion topics and competitive concerns.
Creating the Future of Retail by Redefining Events
The Shoptalk product and technology roadmap extends out for many years. Aggarwal and Wigder shared that they are reinvesting considerably into this very capital-intensive, long-term build. They say they have barely started disrupting events — including their own — with technology.
“While the Hosted Program and Tabletalks are key differentiators for the Shoptalk 2019 experience, there is still a long way to go. We are excited for the future, new technology and program releases, and to continue to be a catalyst for creating the future of retail. Nothing is more important to us than our attendees loving our events because of the value we provide them and their organizations,” concluded Wigder.
I think Aggarwal and Wigder got it right. The future of retail will be re-defined by a large number of people from across the industry collaborating in the right ways and at the right times. And that’s what Shoptalk’s technology facilitates. It’s time to get coding.