Taking the Temperature of the Retail Universe

Posted by Mike Butler on March 8, 2018
Taking the Temperature of the Retail Universe

The second Retail Tomorrow delivered on its promises and already feels like it has earned its place as one of the select, must-attend annual events for senior retailers.  It also provided a fascinating, all-cards-on-the-table snapshot of the state of the retail nation.

There’s a knowing phrase used in the music industry about the pressure on bands to follow up their platinum-selling, critical-smash debut albums: “the difficult second album”. First album you make, there’s no expectation.  But when you’ve enthralled the masses, they’re all looking to you to see if you’ve got what it takes to follow up, or if you were indeed a one-hit-wonder or flash in the pan.  This was very much on our minds when we came to organising the second Retail Tomorrow event. To shamelessly mix my metaphors and go from music to sport: we knocked it clear out of the park.

One good turn deserves another

If I’m really honest, I think we here at Retail in Detail were nicely surprised by how well the first Retail Tomorrow event went down this time last year – getting approval rates of over 95% for both delegates and sponsors is a rare feat indeed, and getting the nomination for a B2B Award for Live Event Marketing was icing on the cake.  But the most rewarding aspect of it was that it seemed to bring together a community hungry for more of the same, which meant we moved quickly to plans for a separate sister-event, Retail Tonight, the first of which also took place successfully last year.

In fact we seemed to have done so much right last year that the temptation would have been to not touch the format at all, for fearing of disturbing whatever magic we’d conjured.  But we’re not people who stand still, and a forum dedicated to “igniting ideas and accelerating innovation” needs to be confidently limber, so we did mix things up a bit – having a panel debate on the start of the second morning chaired by Lord Anthony St-John, extending the second day slightly for one last keynote speaker after lunch, running three of the Dragon’s Den sessions rather than two.  But some things remained the same, including the wonderful environs of the Four Seasons in Hampshire which did us proud.

Making friends and influencing people

I think if I’m pushed to put my finger on what’s special and differentiated about Retail Tomorrow I’d say it’s how close retailers and partners become over the course of the whole event.  There’s an acknowledgement – in these uncertain political times – that we’re all in this together, that challenges are best addressed in an atmosphere of collaboration and communication, and that the ever-changing demands made by the new digital consumer need a shared vision in order to satisfy, let alone surprise and delight.

Retailers had long told us that they wanted to get away from the “conference talks with an expo tacked-on” format, and our idea of running “Dragon’s Den” style sessions (in which companies have an eight-minute ‘pitch’ which the assembled audience can then instantaneously vote ‘in’ or ‘out’) has been enormously popular.  This time round, a few of the technology partners confided to me in advance how nervous they were – they needn’t have worried, the crowd were friendly, albeit no-body’s fools.  Nearly every company made it “over the line” (ie got an approval rating of over 50%) Indeed the fact that the tech partners in the room were brave enough – and good sports all – to get involved proved the perfect “ice-breaker” for deeper conversation during coffee breaks and the four-course dinner in which all parties intermingled and shared thoughts and stories freely.

(The element of fun shouldn’t be underestimated – Microsoft sponsored the cocktail hour and showed off some facial recognition tech which predicted what drink each person would like, and our after-dinner stand-up comedienne Jo Caulfield proved in her self-deprecating way that the retail sector is one which is very happy to laugh at itself.)

As well as all this, technology partners run one-hour workshop sessions based on either emerging technology platforms or current identified areas of client challenges which are as far from “hard sell” as you can get – sessions about showing rather than telling, sessions in which the interactivity and discussion are of paramount importance. 

All of this and drinks until well after midnight makes for a close cohort.

The state of the nation

Our panel debate featured some of the biggest brains I’ve had the pleasure to engage with in some time: King’s College London Professors Jonathan Portes and Anand Menon, international retail guru Gabrielle Hase and panel moderator Lord Anthony St-John, who is chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on AI, Machine Learning and Robotics.

One of the panel recalled the quote that “There’s nothing worse for business or politics than uncertainty” and there’s sadly no getting round the fact that Brexit currently has the UK in the grip of the worst “planning paralysis” in forty years.  That Brexit has cast a shadow over UK industry isn’t something that can be made light of or ignored, but outside of its malign gravity there was room for hope and excitement.

What else was on people’s minds?  The fact that GDPR will land this year has accelerated retailers’ vested interest in making sure their data works harder for them – while being more secure than ever – thus building even more of a case for smart retail analytics.  We must remember that the focus on individuals’ rights that GDPR encapsulates is explicitly something that the consumer is demanding, so GDPR must above all be seen an opportunity not a burden.

The role that automation will play in retail was a big talking point from both last year’s NRF and last year’s Retail Tomorrow, so I was pleased to hear the positive messages coming through about what the store associate of the future will look like – that they will be better trained and better informed, and will also expect to be better paid.

2018 is the year in which personalisation sweeps all else before it.  The retailers at the leading-edge will be those who can harness smart, innovative ways of delivering genuinely personal and differentiated experiences.  Personalisation touches on so much – from voice and facial recognition to payment-linked-loyalty, from bespoke instore experiences to cutting-edge digital marketing.

Artificial Intelligence is key to the 18 months ahead, and in all probability far far beyond.  It’s making a qualitative change to both the instore and online experience.  Chatbots are increasingly popular, while predictive analytics and real-time insights are helping adopters see the difference on the bottom line.  And it’s key to making smart personalisation (perhaps through voice and facial recognition as mentioned above) become a reality.

‘Frictionless retail’ was a phrase I heard a lot, so was intrigued by the Microsoft workshop which boldly went where others feared to tread and pointed out that sometimes friction can be a good thing.  (And if you’re now intrigued, worry not, I’ll be exploring this in full in another blog…) 

RFID was another topic that came up in various sessions, with a widespread acceptance that it’s a technology whose time has finally come and a Zebra Technologies workshop looked at what successful RFID implementation looks like.  As I’ve very recently published a long article dedicated to RFID I won’t go into detail again here, but Mark from Zebra did share some stats new to me which seem to back up my argument: Using RFID can enable retailers to increase sales from between 4% and 21%, cut receiving times by 91%, reduce out of stocks by 60%-80%, and slash inventory cycle count by up to 75%.

And there was so much more.  By nailing its difficult second album, Retail Tomorrow established itself as an important, talked-about thought-leadership event that’s here to stay.  If you didn’t join us this year, then make sure you pencil late February 2019 in your diary now.

The right people, right now

So who delighted us most this year?  I’ll be devoting a blog each to our two conference bookenders, maverick social and retail commentator Ken Hugheswho played an absolute blinder, and the irrepressible fount of energy and inspiration that is Cate Trotter, retail ninja par excellence and Head Trendspotter at Insider Trends.  So, watch this space.