My Take on the 2012 World Retail Congress

Over seven years ago I met with Ian McGarrigle, founder and Chairman of the World Retail Congress, when he was launching it. I said something like, “…Ian, I don’t think the world needs another conference.”

Today, in my opinion, the world cannot do without this conference. And, I’m happily “eating crow” by saying if you missed the 2012 WRC in London last week, you missed something really big, important and relevant for the unprecedented changes that are coursing through the world of retailing today.

Throughout the conference, the themes centered on the fact that the “all-powerful, omnipotent consumer” is beyond question today, even in emerging countries. And, at the end of the day, to win the consumer’s dollar in an over-competed world, it’s still all about the obvious: product; brand; and, service. However, the world of retailing and its relationship with consumers has been flipped on its head, making the “obvious” success factors just the price of entry to achieve competitive parity. And, one of the major “take-aways” for me during the three days was the fact that retail leaders from around the world now seem to understand why it’s been “flipped on its head” (the drivers), and how to embrace and capitalize on it as an opportunity.

The Internet and its contiguous technologies are its drivers, resulting in the globalization of both the “front” and “back” ends of retailers’ value chains, as well as how they pursue and build relationships with consumers. And, the first and most fundamental paradigm that has shifted, the biggest “change in the game” so to speak, is the “playing field.” The “field” used to have the store in the center (of town) and the consumer went to the store; now, the consumer is in the center (period), and the “store” must go to them, both physically and electronically, or provide a compelling enough reason (beyond just price) for them to want to come to the store.

While many of the attendees were veterans from “back in the day,” and who were admittedly “tech-challenged,” they unanimously acknowledged the absolute necessity to integrate technology into strategy development and its use in all aspects of the business, most importantly in the “front end” pursuit of, and engagement with, the consumers, wherever they are: online, offline or on the run, or “boundary-less retailing,” as Mindy Grossman, CEO of HSN defines the new world.

And, because of this fundamental shift of the necessity for retailers to “go-to” consumers or give them an overwhelming reason to come to them, the two strategic imperatives that threaded through every panel and presentation over the three days were:

1. The necessity to identify and operate on all possible distribution platforms, all seamlessly integrated providing the ability to engage consumers wherever, whenever, how and how often they desire to be engaged, and providing seamless participation for consumers. It’s about easier, quicker, more convenient access to consumers (for retailers), and easier, quicker, more convenient access for consumers.

“Omni-channel” has become the buzz word for this and was uttered hundreds of times throughout the Congress. But, beyond just the obvious of integrating the “bricks, clicks” and mobile devices, it also necessitates the deployment of smaller stores that can move into areas, physically closer to consumers. It’s also about operating on other retailers “platforms” who may well be competitors: Brooks Brothers and TopShop inside Nordstrom’s; Sephora, Joe Fresh, Mango and soon, many others in JC Penney; Sun Glass Hut and others in Macy’s. Or how about Tesco’s virtual store lining the walls of South Korea’s subways, where a commuter can exit the train, key onto the digital codes and order coffee, bagels and orange juice delivered to their office.

2. Once this “boundary-less” or “Omni-channel” distribution finds and engages the customer, there must be some kind of compelling experience or the engagement will be fleeting and non-recurring.

In-store examples include the obvious:  low-tech, high-touch store events; fashion shows; amenities such as coffee, restaurants or food courts; cooking classes; music; educational events; and, of course, better service, less clutter, better lighting and sight lines, etc.

Now, on top of these areas, high-tech is being implemented.  Examples from various retailers: the use of iPads by associates for quicker, easier check out, or to find an item not in the store, but enabling the identification of wherever it may be in other stores or distribution facilities. Video streaming of runway shows such as in Burberry’s new flagship store in London, (which hosted the opening night reception for the WRC), along with their use of technology that allows a customer to stand in front of a screen, download any apparel item so that it magically appears on her body to see how it looks and fits. Other devices with which customers can view an apparel item on a model and can also download the story of its heritage and/or craftsmanship, where it’s from etc. The MeAlity body scanner being deployed in malls and some stores such as Selfridge’s in London, that scans the body in 10 seconds and provides a chart listing those brands that will best fit your body.

These heightened and exclusive experiences, also referred to by me on several occasions using Starbuck’s and Lululemon as the “poster-children,” are compelling enough for consumers to spend time and effort to “go to” those stores, while passing competitors along the way. And, the “kicker” is that they will spend more time in the experience and more money: the ultimate weapon in the war against price promoting and “the race to the bottom.”
Reader: Whoever You Are, the WRC is a Must!

So there you have it, my recap of some of the key takeaways of the 2012 World Retail Congress, all of the terrific, fun side-events, receptions, dinners, awards and so forth notwithstanding. Anybody in the retailing or contiguous industries not having attended, you missed a big-time learning and networking experience. Next time, be there.

Robin Lewis About Robin Lewis

Robin Lewis has over forty years of strategic operating and consulting experience in the retail and related consumer products industries. He has held executive positions at DuPont, VF Corporation, Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), and Goldman Sachs, among others, and has consulted for dozens of retail, consumer products and other companies. In addition to his role as CEO and Editorial Director of The Robin Report, he is a professor at the Graduate School of Professional Studies at The Fashion Institute of Technology.