My Key Takeaways from the Global Retailing Conference

By: Leslie Warshaw

New technology-based in-store experiences are growing faster than anything we’ve ever seen before. But it seems whenever I listen to the experts in our industry talk about that technology, the key reoccurring theme is one that’s been around forever: it’s about providing personal, customer-centric experiences. These new technologies are simply acting as an enabler.

We hear over and over how critical it is to focus on the customer… but isn’t that how Sam Walton and Marshall Field built their retail empires in the first place? With all of this new technology in the retail environment, aren’t we really just getting ‘back to the future?’ 

When I was in school, one of my summer jobs was in the corporate offices of Marshall Field’s at a time when the brand was thriving (and yes, to all you Chicagoans, it was in those heady days before the Macy’s takeover). It was also a time when employee on-boarding included a history lesson where the first thing they taught us was the mantra of our founder: “Give the Lady What She Wants.” Although it would be considered politically incorrect in today’s world, his basic philosophy is something that is much discussed in today’s “Age of Transformation in Retail.”

Earlier this month, at the Global Retailing Conference (organized by the University of Arizona’s Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing), this theme was reiterated over and over by many of the speakers as CEO’s from Walmart, Lowe’s and PetSmart took the stage.

During their presentations, I couldn’t help but think about how the customer-centric approach was a driving philosophy in the early days of both Walmart and Marshall Field’s, when the brands were in a period of high growth. Interestingly enough, Field’s was founded in the mid-1800’s while Walmart didn’t arrive until the early ‘60s. Even though they were more than 100 years apart, the mantra of customer focus maintained its relevance as a key growth driver. And guess what? It’s still every bit as relevant today during this time of transformation. 

At the conference, Walmart CEO Doug McMillan, talked about the concept of Walmart building an ecosystem company. At its core, it is still about serving the customer with a seamless experience. “This isn’t just about buying and selling merchandise. It’s creating an ecosystem, a set of platforms that has some network effects, they can mutually reinforce each other,” McMillon said.

The customer-centric theme was brought up again and again at the conference, by multiple presenters, just said in slightly different ways. Here are a few quotes I jotted down:

“It’s an entire ecosystem of commerce all driven by the human being.”

“It’s about creating meaningful experiences for shoppers and relating to people.”

“We need to be authors of the experience.”

“We need to serve the shopper with human-centered design.”

“Personalization is key.”

“We need to put data to work to understand every person as an individual.”

“There is a life and a human in the center of what we do.”

“In order to serve the customer, we must build a better relationship.”

“Move from transaction to relationship.”

Do you see the resemblance? The technology is different. The retailers are different. But the fundamental truth that’s so central to success remains the same.

In one presentation I found particularly interesting, Anne Spangenberg, VP of Global Merchandising at Nike, spoke about replacing the concept of the customer journey with the Engagement Flywheel. The Flywheel includes 4 key areas and is more relevant for the “phygital” environment retailers are currently playing in. These stages include: 

Engagement: Analyze consumer engagement with our products and experiences

Data: Identify opportunities from product and experience engagement

Experiences: Create tailored experiences based on consumer preferences

Personal: Engage with members to provide input and create 1-1 assortments

At a high level, it feels like we are back to the future with a retail model that is focused on the customer. Not a new concept, but far more enabled and sophisticated in our current era through data, technology, and collaboration.

So what are my key takeaways?

  • Invest and focus on understanding the customer. This means investing in data and figuring out how to use it must be a top priority. Behavioral data is critical and so is the delivery mechanism and the utilization.
  • Create an ecosystem. The physical and digital stores have to entice the shopper with positive experiences through the use of innovation and technology… and this needs to be completely integrated.
  • Move fast. Speed is critical. Accelerate timelines and the decision-making processes.
  • Make collaboration of the utmost importance. This is not always easy to do when organizations are built with a siloed structure. Senior management has to support a holistic view by making sure collaboration is a priority across the organization.
  • Invest in people and training. With so many changes happening at such a rapid pace, education is more important than ever. Knowledge is still power and it always will be.

How will our organization change in the next 6 months? Are customer experience-based strategies driving your approach? Let us hear from you! Connect with us on social media and tell us what you think.