Wrapping Up the 2024 CMA-SIMA Conference

March 6, 2024
By Mike Wilkening, Communications Manager, ARC (CMA | SIMA)

“Trailblazing Retail’s Bold Future” was the theme of this year’s CMA-SIMA Conference in Dallas, and indeed, what lay ahead in an increasingly virtual world, with Generative AI affecting everything and everyone exponentially now, was on everyone’s mind in attendance.

But first things first.

The heartbeat of the CMA-SIMA Conference is the handshake, the hug, the high-five. Nice to see you, a pleasure to meet you, congratulations on the new role, how’s the family? The cocktail hours, the big party for attendees on the final night of the event, the puppies in the Expo Hall.

You don’t get any of that sitting at home. Conferences are about connecting, and it’s one of the reasons you attend. It’s what you tell us in the post-conference feedback survey, and it’s what we see in so many of your faces when we see you each year. You’re here because you want to be.

You’re also here because you want to learn. And no matter your function in the manufacturer, CPG, retailer or solution-provider sphere, you had a chance to soak up the latest in best practices and new developments in your field at the 2024 conference.

From the start of the conference on Monday afternoon to the end at midday Wednesday, attendees had access to the following:

  • Five in-depth skill/training workshops
  • Seven thought-leader keynotes, including a very popular, thought-provoking finale from Wharton Business School professor Dr. Jonah Berger
  • Nineteen industry-focused breakout sessions
  • Twenty emerging technology sessions

On top of all of that, Tuesday’s Women in Leadership Luncheon offered powerful perspectives and lessons learned on succeeding in our industry. Add it all up, and that’s 53 different programs. That is a lot to pack into roughly 50-55 hours, give or take. But that’s the idea. You came, you saw, you soaked in all you could, and we weren’t going to send you home hungry, or without a mind full of new ideas.

(Side note: Here’s where we make a shameless plug for attendees to fill out the post-conference survey, which fills you in on how to get many of the presentation decks from last week. If you attended but didn’t get a survey, shoot us an email and we’ll send it along.)

As we put a bow on the 2024 CMA-SIMA Conference, here’s a recap of some of the highlights.

The Choosy Consumer

The formal lead-off to our three-day event was a pitch-perfect, powerhouse keynote presentation from Mastercard Chief Economist Michelle Meyer. In 45 minutes, attendees got a clear picture on the state of the U.S. economy.

“The bottom line, the big story is that it is an economy that is still expanding,” Meyer said. “It is not an economy that is on the verge of recession. And it’s adjusting, it’s changing.”

Meyer’s presentation centered on the idea of the “empowered” U.S. consumer, one perhaps slightly bowed by inflationary shocks, but one still with the ability to spend due to a strong labor market. Unemployment remains low, under 4%, with wage growth at 5%, down from 7% in summer 2022, but above CPI growth of 3%.

Meyer referred to 2023 as the “year of the bifurcated consumer basket,” with shoppers increasing spending in restaurants (up 10.2%) and lodging (up 7.3%) but cutting back on home improvement, footwear, jewelry, department-store and electronics spending.

Where spending really ramped up, however, was around concerts and movies, which saw a 33% increase year-over-year. And yes, there is a tie-in to Taylor Swift, who was a force at the box office and a driver of economic gains in the areas nearest her shows.

“You have to ask yourself, how is this the same consumer?” Meyer said. “How is it the consumer that walks into a store and looks for promotions or trading down or trying to save some money? That same consumer who’s going to splurge to see Taylor Swift and Beyonce and be completely price-sensitive?”

Continued Meyer: “And it’s the same consumer, because it’s a consumer that has the ability to navigate this economic environment, because they have purchasing power, because they have a job — but they also realize that they want to get the most for their money.”

In short: the consumer has resources, but not unlimited resources. And, of course, the consumer only has so much time.

Which brings us to our next topic.

Forging the ‘In-Store’ Connection  

Fun fact: the author of this blog came home from the conference and dropped his iPhone into the tub. Good news: The phone works. Bad news: the Lightning charging mechanism doesn’t. Only old-school wall-chargers seem to work, and a couple were needed, quickly. The search led to one of the online shopping giants, and two replacement chargers were purchased.

We promise there’s a point here. Years ago, our search probably leads us to a mall, or another retail store. Today, it was e-commerce, in a snap, without even thinking.

Retail design expert Kevin Kelley sees the rise of online shopping and hears the projections that it will grow beyond our wildest dreams. His Tuesday keynote, “The Bonfire Effect: How to Create Stores That Survive & Thrive in a Digitally Dominant Era,” focused on the opportunity to retailers to deliver experiences that customers want – and connections they are wired to need.

“NASDAQ predicted that by the year 2040, 90% of our purchases will happen online,” Kelley said. “I don’t believe this, by the way. I don’t believe as human beings, while Wall Street may have plans for what’s they’re gonna do, with our wallets and with our lives, your body has a plan for what it wants to do. We tend to walk forward, not backwards. We tend to look straight ahead, not sideways.”

The secret, Kelley said, is developing stores that delight shoppers, that aren’t drab, soulless, and draining.

“When we talk about what customers want, everybody says, oh, they want low prices. They want frictionless environments. They want efficiency.  . . . That is not what humans want,” Kelley said. “Humans want experiences. They want to connect with others. They want to be in pro-social environments.”

Then this: “We do want to get together as humans, but we can’t do it in the mattress warehouse anymore. We have to change that approach.”

Yes, retailers have to change — and quickly. Time is of the essence.

Your Career Path: Beware the Number of Stops?

Let’s stay on the topic of time.

Our careers aren’t infinite. So how do we get to where we want to go, when we want to do it?

In Tuesday’s keynote “The Past, Present and Shaping Futures: The Fusion of AI, Human Insight, and the New Era of Retail Careers,” ARC President Emily Callahan unveiled exciting new research about career paths and previewed a new interactive matrix designed to help category management, shopper insights, and other retail/CPG functions determine where they need to upskill.

To conduct the research, ARC, with the help of sibling data science company XGS.ai, analyzed over 6,000 LinkedIn profiles to map the career paths of director-level employees in retail.

There were many interesting findings, and a couple key points stood out:

  1. A Master’s degree doesn’t hurt when it comes to reaching the director level, but experience matters just as much, and perhaps more.
  2. Moving jobs in the quest for the right career path can be the right move, but too much job-hopping can limit your horizons, with anything beyond seven jobs having diminishing returns.

“Collectively and individually, our path to success is rarely a straight line,” Callahan said. “And it’s a journey filled with all kinds of twists and turns and unexpected discoveries. But with the right tool and this incredible supportive community and unwavering commitment to growth, there is really no limit to what we can achieve together.”

There will be much more to come from us on the skills matrix, which we’ll unveil later in the spring. But let’s finish with Emily’s point.

Progress can be non-linear, and success stories can spring from anywhere. If you were present at the 2024 CMA-SIMA Conference in Dallas, you saw some of those stories. You saw them in the faces of the people you encountered in the hallways, in the meeting rooms, at the breakout sessions, at the cocktail hours. When you looked in the mirror, you saw a success story, too, for no one shows up at a conference on accident. You earned your way.

Our job is to help you in your quest to get the rest of the way toward where you want to go. More than anything, we hope you agree that’s what the CMA-SIMA Conference is all about.