Postcards from Paris: Reflections on World Retail Congress 2024
World Retail Congress 2024

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Consider what happens when 800+ top-level retail and brand leaders gather annually to invoke the state of the world through the lens of the World Retail Congress.  It’s a chummy, low-keyed group focused on high-level strategy and operations of global retailing. No grandstanding. No drama. It’s a deliberate leadership vibe. And let’s face it, where better to discuss the future of the industry than in historic Paris which is fundamentally a retail town?

Shopping, real shopping is instinct-based. It comes from the side of the head that is literally not rational. Now we try to make it rational by comparing and weighing costs and thinking through the pros and cons, but in the end, if you don’t make it feel like an important choice, an emotional choice, she won’t go for it. Even in a convenience store. Those retailers who understand this, and all the cues to help it along, win.

With a theme that memes this summer’s Olympics, High Performance was more about getting back to the basics and re-righting the global retail juggernaut. You know you’re not at an inward-looking event when the content is informed by international politics, the global economy, ongoing wars, and climate change. If you’re paying attention, you’ll walk away with a broad overview of the world. And wherever you are on the planet, it’s a tough time for retail and digital transformation is an absolute essential.

Heard in the Halls

Although largely reined in by corp comm and investor relations teams, there were genuine glimmers of candor and personal insights from retail leaders. We listened for what was new and surprising.  So, in no particular order, here are quick sound bites that gave us pause.

  • We’re in a revolution and AI is today’s guillotine.
  • With elections in India, the U.S., and the U.K., and wars in Ukraine and the Mideast, global retail is on a balance beam.
  • The consumer is the only product.
  • Change yourself before you are changed.
  • We are navigating a more complicated world of contradictions.
  • Branded data.
  • We don’t need a map we need a compass.
  • Boring retail is death.
  • GenAI is extreme design.
  • Don’t confuse winning with success.
  • The power of simulation.
  • Busy is the new stupid.

Moments in Time

International retail leaders weighed in on their challenges and gave updates on running their businesses not-as-usual considering the world situation. Although sticking to their scripts, a few moments emerged that revealed the true character of these icons powering iconic retail brands.

  • Thierry Garnier, CEO of Kingfisher (international home improvement) says perfection is a disease. He said he learned this life-changing lesson in his pre-Kingfisher career in, of all places, China. This world-experienced leader has that refreshing spark that motivates any team to follow him. He takes inspiration from Asia and reminds us that we are all interconnected and interdependent. Persona: Confident and charming.
  • Judith McKenna, former CEO of Walmart’s international division, says talent is not a strategy. Effective leaders have a duty of care. HQ – Hope Quotient — is the fourth Q to add to Emotional, Intellectual and Resilience Quotients. She also said about careers in retail, “Where else can you excel and rise to the top without any qualifications?” We’ll let you interpret that as you may. Persona: Empathetic and empowering.
  • Michael Ward, Harrod’s CEO lives and breathes experiential luxury running an iconic house of brands for an exclusive inner circle of customers. Rather than transactions, 205-year-old Harrod’s is built on personal service and relationships. They invest in customer-facing technologies serving communities of passion. The Harrod’s men’s club in Shanghai, the Residence, is one such exclusive community. Persona: Noblesse oblige.
  • Jean-Marc Bellaiche, CEO of Printemps founded in 1865, is refreshing and reinvigorating this venerable store by repainting the brand a vibrant springtime grass green. And in other modern moves, he has placed a media lab in full view, and the 7th floor under a 19th-century industrial dome is an entire department for resale, upcycling, and circularity named Second Printemps — with Kelly bags, Dries von Noten, Chloe, and other luxury designers galore. Bellaiche says previous owners leave notes for new owners. Try this one “It’s the dress I wore when I got divorced.” He has exported the brand outside of France – to Doha and New York City. Persona: Ernest and contemporary.
  • Alexandre Bompard, CEO of hypermarket Carrefour, launched the first completely accessible store for people with disabilities. Partnering with the Paralympic Games, he has put a stake in the ground for people with special needs. Carrefour is still on the journey to make the customer experience more seamless. Crisis is becoming the new normal. And decisions are made mindful of the macro issues of geopolitics, inflation, and climate change. Persona: Responsive and responsible.
  • Sephora CEO Guilliaume Motte walks the talk: He underwent a tech-based skin evaluation from a Sephora care expert. Inclusive and accessible, Sephora measures success on the Love Meter. He oversees 3000 stores in 35 international markets with 52,000 employees, 70% of whom are women. Motte champions a world where everyone can celebrate their own beauty. Sephora is a global poster child for empowerment and collaboration. On trend, hot brands on social media displays are lures for customers. Persona: Energetic and advocate for social justice.
  • Janet Hayes, CEO of Crate and Barrel, after a long prelude from German parent company Otto on its corporate virtues, shared that CBs with designer desks are responsible for driving 40 percent higher revenues. Her mantra? Help customers build a home with purpose. Persona: Diligent and focused.
  • Ethan Chernofsky, SVP of Marketing, has a positive attitude and says that stores are valuable but then again are undervalued. He says all channels have unique advantages and disadvantages of course, and it’s not about how to make a digital experience in a store, it’s to deliver on the reality that people love to shop. Persona: Optimistic and analytical.
  • Ingka Group (Ikea) Chief People Officer Ulrika Biesèrt says giving people belonging, purpose and meaning is the retail giant’s North Star when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff. They give workers more influence than ever to empower them. Building psychologically safe organizations where people can be themselves, regardless of identity, is a superpower. Persona: Resilient and steady.
  • Nicolas Houzé, CEO of Galeries Lafayette supports the new reality that retailers have to adapt to the way customers want to use stores, not the opposite. Local customers are the first and foremost, not shoehorned into a global brand experience. Expansion is on the move for this Belle Epoque icon founded in 1893 with seven stores outside of France with five more in the works.  Persona: Deliberate and ambitious.
  • Brand President of Europe for Claire’s, Richard Flint, is playing with the metaverse and content bringing Gen Z’s favorite treasure trove into stores like Kohl’s and Galeries Lafayette. He stands for making self-expression accessible to Alphas in the shadow of Zs as role models. Persona: Cool and chill.
  • The lone CEO wearing casual, comfortable clothes, James Reinhart of thredUP was an unscripted, candid breath of fresh air. Younger and slightly laconic – but super sophisticated about his business (Harvard MBA) — he lives his mission to make the world a better place. Purpose-driven, Reinhart gives his customers the agency to choose to make a difference. And he is spot on with next gens’ passion for thrifting as a personal discovery, supporting the individual as a retail brand, having choice, and avoiding the landfill Persona: Authentic and convincing.

Customer Experience by Design

Full disclosure: TRR was on stage at WRC with a candid conversation about delivering an exceptional customer experience through the lens of design. How do space and place create a great experience or a dismal one? Three world-class architects/designers shared their insights on how to embed design the infrastructure of a customer experience. Kevin Roche, Founder of Roche Design Strategy is a long-time master planner for LVMH around the world; Ella Birnbaum, Managing and Creative Director at Malherbe; and Ed Hofmann, Partner of Design and Strategy for ASG-Chute Gerdeman defined and described how store design can transform a transaction into a relationship. 

They were in solidarity in measuring the success of retail design in delivering projects on time and on budget, by making customers happy, and by valuing that humans are emotionally driven animals. Hospitality and restaurant design do it better than retail by creating a relationship with their customer much faster than retail does. They are more responsive, more intimate, and more thoughtful in their environments Those lines are blurring, however. Malherbe creates a retail space that is a fusion of technology and real-time shopping at Sephora focused on younger digitally savvy customers.

What is the biggest mistake retailers make when it comes to design? Roche says they need to have courage and take risks. And Hofmann sums it up, “Shopping, real shopping is instinct based. It comes from the side of the head that is literally not rational. Now we try to make it rational by comparing and weighing costs and thinking through the pros and cons, but in the end if you don’t make it feel like an important choice, an emotional choice, she won’t go for it. Even in a convenience store. Those retailers that understand this, and all the cues to help it along, win.”

World Retail Congress 2024: Unexpected Moments

The unexpected moments at any conference are the ones that can often be the most memorable because they are a surprise. Conversations that lead to collabs, partnerships, and hatch big ideas. Although there are many, here are a few unexpected encounters we had at WRC.

  • Susan Viscon, VP & Executive Director, Path Ahead Ventures, REI oversees REI Path Ahead Ventures launched in 2021. It was created in response to the fact that the estimate that only one percent of founders in the outdoor industry identify as a person of color. REI has built a strong community of founders, partnering with more than 70 of them, providing nearly $700,000 in grants and investing $4 million across 23 companies.  Impressive!
  • Eric Roosen Co-founder of Netherlands-based Forebel makes sea socks made from organic cotton and recycled nylon that comes from discarded fishing nets and other nylon waste. A passionate advocate for our oceans, he says fishing nets, often left behind in, are harmful to marine life. It’s a win/win: every purchase of a pair of Seas Socks helps protect our oceans and marine life. He is also in partnership with a European Coachella-esque event to recycle all the plastic water bottles into new socks. An unsung hero for the planet.
  • Suzanne Long Chief Sustainability and Transformation Officer at Albertson’s says with about 275,000 frontline workers across 2,300 stores they are transforming associate engagement to drive real connection points among their associates, customers, and local communities. This echoes the U.S. Surgeon General’s report that our country is in an “epidemic of loneliness,” and she says their stores can be a place where people can find the connection, they both need and crave as humans. She says that they are also exploring the intersection of associate engagement and Albertson’s ESG strategy themed Recipe for Change, to see how connection to a larger purpose can improve business performance. A role model for empathy and empowerment.
  • Caroline Fabrigas, CEO of ScentMarketing, develops scent branding for companies like Wayfair (think bespoke candles). Her projects are innovative and far-ranging with exclusive fragrance branding and seamless diffusion services; she developed the fragrance diffusion for Christmas trees lining New York’s Fifth Avenue. She says that she helps merchants and brands elevate their in-store retail experience by using the invisible influencing power of scent marketing.  She adds that her clients notice that their customers linger longer in scented spaces, there can be an increase in the perceived value of a product or experience and scenting is known to enhance overall brand memorability and recall. An innovative entrepreneur.
  • Cyndi Rhoades is the Founder of Worn Again Technologies and Co-founder of World Circular Textiles Day. An ardent advocate for the circular economy, she says circular textiles are making good progress by advancing her polymer recycling technology, which recaptures and restores polyester and cellulose from end-of-use textiles. The pilot plant site is in Winterthur, Switzerland. Back in the UK, Circle-8 Textile Ecosystems is part of a government grant driving the transition from manual to automated textile sorting (for non-reusable textiles) and a major stepping-stone to enable fiber-to-fiber recycling. She also has a collaboration with the new textiles division of TOMRA, a global leader in advanced collection and sorting systems. She is encouraged that circularity is starting to take hold beyond talking to reality. A heroine for the planet.



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