Retail Reality Check

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\"retail_reality\"On June 4, 2015, The Robin Report and FGI co-hosted a retail symposium focusing on new approaches and technologies that are changing the way retailing is done. The panel moderated by long time industry icon, Paul Charron, with a cross section of seasoned industry veterans representing brand, ecommerce and luxury retail, had a lively discussion. Despite varied points of view and the irrefutable and growing impact of technology on everything we touch, two lasting truisms of retail were underscored: product and service. What has changed is the way retailers and brands address these requisites to meet new consumer expectations and demands; plus developing the new systems that support communications and commerce.

Chaos & the Wild West

Addressing a conference room packed with retail industry executives at the New York Hilton, Robin Lewis introduced the event with the mandate that we are all serving the omnipotent consumer. He likened today’s environment to chaos and the Wild West. Robin urged the audience to “proactively embrace technology and be wherever the consumer wants you, engage and be entrepreneurial.” Businesses are being transformed in tandem with structural shifts to the economy and a huge generational shift as millennials replace Boomers as the target consumer market. Meanwhile, the economy remains sluggish, wage growth is stagnant and discounting perpetuates a no-growth economy.

The smart-phone addicted and ecom-inclined millennial customer, each of who is a unique POS (point of sale) is driving change in the industry. To win this cohort, Robin’s mandates are:

  1. Create an experience so compelling that consumers will become addicted.
  2. Have a seamlessly integrated omni-distribution channel that provides quicker and easier access to and for your shoppers.
  3. Vertically integrate your value chain, either through ownership or total control.

Mobile First

Empowering brands on smart phones and bringing the latest fashion to consumers is April Uchitel’s task as chief brand officer at Spring, which has the unique strategy of going mobile first. Spring is a two-year old, mobile app fashion mall. With 21 years in fashion, April has a strong sense of what today’s consumers want — and it is not downloading multiple mono-branded apps for shopping. So that is the basis of the value proposition Spring provides. Starting with 200 brands in August 2014, this mobile mall/marketplace is now home to 760 brands and growing. It is providing a shopping experience mirroring how women shop with fast fashion adjacent to La Prairie. Spring has benefitted from Apple’s support, naming it the best fashion app of New York Fashion Week and a Top 25 App of the year. LVMH is one of Spring’s investors, providing the luxury behemoth with access to learnings from entrepreneurs and new technologies, entry into a more contemporary space and a vision of what is relevant to the millennial. “They get to learn alongside of people that think about old things in new ways,” Paul quipped.

As a turnkey solution for brands on mobile, and a fun and convenient way to shop for consumers, Spring provides the venue for brands to leverage their content and social. Spring curates the marketplace, and adds new brands weekly, encouraging exclusives and testing new ideas, for brands to speak to the moment. Spring captures a wealth of information regarding shopping behavior: how many times the app is opened, length of session, where the shopper goes, how she navigates through Spring, sharing and conversion—all in real time. This data is shared with the brands, supporting Spring’s (and the brands) understanding of their customers and enabling personalization and customization. April summed it up with “the more we learn collectively, the better we can serve the customer.”

Keeping the Customer at the Center of Everything

Serving the customer has been foundational to 100+ years of success at Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, according to CEO, Karen Katz. Balancing the rich heritage of retail brands while being very modern is key to continued success. Keeping the customer at the center of everything they do is pivotal. This is emphasized by the fact that Karen answers every customer email she receives personally. That’s customer service on steroids! Ecommerce began in 1999 and today, thanks in part to the acquisition, Neiman’s leads luxury in ecommerce. The omnichannel journey began five years ago at Neiman’s and is integrated into the business model driven by its consumer-centric obsession (in the best sense of the word!). Big data provides the means to the next frontier of personalization, and creating a highly personal online experience.


A personalization focus is common among all three companies the panel represented, differentiated by execution in keeping with individual brand identities. At Neman’s, highly personalized relationships occur in-store as well as on a digital platform. The in-store intimacy is recreated online drawing on big data and its wealth of customer information on content, product and communication. Tech and marketing must ultimately converge” Karen said, “and the two things most important things we do are to present compelling product and making sure we have best customer experience.”

Spring’s learnings are iterative, based on real time insights based on sign-in (42% come through Facebook), cross shopping, engagement, and use of social media — what she/he is sharing. Spring appeals to both women and men, who represent about 42% of shoppers and 37% of purchases. Spring develops close customer relationships through recommendations, new brands, exclusives, and notification of items that are similar to likes and sale alerts, as well as online hand written notes that provide real time conversation. The interactive digital experience has become a principle element to competitive advantage.

Marketing’s role is changing with technology and big data. Paul sees the rigorous analytical practices pursued in the CPG industry now adopted by retailers and apparel brands, industries where the science of marketing has been largely absent.

Product and Design

Shinola is fast becoming a lifestyle brand representing clean modern design manufactured in the U.S., devoid of ego, appealing to a very broad swathe of 18- to 85-year olds. The brand takes its heritage from the gritty steel, skill and labor of Detroit, “the city that made this country,” and its name from the shoe polish brand founded in 1907. The company is four years old, and two years ago it launched the Shinola watch business supported by a mix of digital and traditional media. Within four days, 2,500 watches priced at $550 were sold before a single watch was made. Addressing the brand, Steve Bock, whose title at Shinola is Jack of Many Trades, said “obviously product is critical, that’s a given. Shinola transcends product and appeals to the heart, and the intrinsic value of a product without pretense and that made in U.S. factories. It provides a very compelling story.” At Shinola, the brand resonates personally with consumers and technology enhances management’s ability to determine strategic direction.

Taking Risk

Embracing risk is an entrepreneur’s competitive advantage. Entrepreneurs see through the naysayers and forge ahead in pursuit of the vision. At Shinola, management convinced the team that its brand and business concept would work, largely based on the power of optimism and small victories. Spring is following the consumer; she/he is telling the company where to go, and the platform is evolving quickly, with continuous innovation and experimentation. “Fashion needs to take big swings with its inherent big risks. People want fashion and will wait for fashion; it’s not about speed to market from a product perspective. Great product, a seamless shopping experience and no shipping fees,” that’s Spring’s mantra at this iteration. For Neiman Marcus, getting the executive team to take big risks and embrace potential failure has been one of the biggest challenges. “Some of our bets won’t work and we will fail, and that’s ok,” Karen said, “in fact, out of failure comes something really positive.” Neiman’s follows multiple paths simultaneously keeping the customer at the center; and what the consumer accepts is sometimes a surprise even to Neiman Marcus “experts.”



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