Retail Innovation Week Looks Back – and Forward
By Stephen Silver
An online conference was held the week of Jan. 11-15 that offered many key lessons for CE retailers to note in 2021 – and it wasn’t International CES. Retail Innovation Week, hosted by the “retail think tank” known as PSFK and its founder, Piers Fawkes, was held for the third time. The conference normally takes place in New York, but this time it happened virtually, on a platform called Hopin. Fawkes, in a video previewing the show, said that “we’ve researched the main themes and the most important ideas that are developing in retail and along the customer experience journey, and we’ve invited some of the world’s most progressive experts to come share their ideas and share tips and talk to our community about how we should respond to this moment and how we should build business going forward.”
Themed Days Each day of the conference had a specific theme. Day 1 was “Next-Gen Digital Commerce,” the second day was “The New Role of the Store,” the third was “Retailing with Purpose,” and the fourth was “Winning the Modern Marketplace.” Each day’s events began with talk-show style interviews and panels, mostly hosted by Fawkes himself, leading into breakout sessions. There was also virtual networking, taking place on the margins of the discussions as well as before they began. There was a continuing thematic thread for the show – one that was frequently discussed during CES as well: Industries have had to adapt on the fly to the changes brought about by the pandemic, and now that the end of the pandemic may be in sight, it’s time to take stock of which of those changes will be permanent. “2020 was our year for e-commerce- – to see the real adoption of digital e-commerce,” Megan Higgins, vice president and general manager, eCommerce and Marketplaces at Avalara — a sales tax compliance business — said in a first-day panel. She added that while those changes had been in the works for quite some time, “this is the inflection year.” “As a small retailer, you have to embrace technology. It is so important,” Higgins added. As part of the event, the conference released a series of reports, one of which was connected to the Day 2 presentation on “The New Role of the Store.” “To better balance safety and convenience and offer greater personalization and flexibility, retailers are integrating technology and data into their physical stores, empowering both shoppers and associates with mobile-activated experiences and expanding access to value-add services like in-store appointments and BOPIS [Buy Online Pickup In Store],” Fawkes wrote in the introduction to that report. That report contained such advice as “folding fulfillment capabilities spanning in-store warehousing, ship from store and curbside pickup into their physical footprint, further blending the online-to-offline shopping experience.” This trend includes everything from turning closed retail locations into fulfillment centers, to shifting the store’s “purpose” to serving multichannel customers. The report also cited data from Shopify showing that more than half of consumers are “more comfortable making in-store purchases with digital or contactless payments.” “Physical retail will always be important, but it’s changing. Part of the reason department stores have struggled is because a lot of them just put product out on the shelf and hope it sells. That’s not the future of physical retail. It’s about personalization and building connections with customers,” Ophelia Chen, founder of New York-based online retail company Bobblehaus, said in the report.
Rethinking the Retail Space One panel, titled “Recalibrating Your Physical Retail Presence to be Faster, Smaller and Nearer,” offered advice on rethinking the retail space. It was conducted by the three cofounders of the consumer engagement firm YourStudio. The panelists asked “hypothetical questions” about how retail will work: For “faster,” the question was, “How can retail become a live feedback loop to listen and evolve?” For “smaller,” it was, “What are the most powerful new formats as retail footprints condense?” And for “nearer,” it was, “How do we use store locations to reach out to and support neighborhoods?” “It’s no longer enough to respond to the pace of change of the brand,” YourStudio’s Danny Newman said. “At YourStudio, we talk about moving at the pace of culture, and that really helps build resilience into your retail experience, to ensure we’re not just keeping up with the consumer, but we’re also staying ahead.” Another report issued as part of Retail Innovation Week, created in partnership with Avalara, was titled “Marketplace and the Next-Gen Digital Experience: Developing an Omnichannel Digital Experience,” and tied in with the fourth day of the event. That report included six key strategies: SEO discovery and research; product page experience; checkout and payments; merchandising and fulfillment; backend optimization; and analytics and reporting. One of the people participating in Retail Innovation Week actually has some experience in CE retail. Ron Thurston formerly ran a series of Apple Stores in the Houston area, and went on to author a book called “Retail Pride: The Guide to Celebrating Your Accidental Career,” which was released last October. Interviewed by Fawkes, Thurston said he wrote the book because he was “defensive of my industry,” and he wrote the book “to celebrate this industry, and people who work in it, and to be proud of it.” Thurston’s book lists three of what he calls “pillars of retail success,” which apply across all retail industries: “Empathy, curiosity, and focus. Those things, working side by side, can set people up for success in this industry, and I think many others,” he said.
  • Retail Innovation Week, an online conference held the same week as CES in early January, looked back at lessons from the pandemic – and whatretailers can learn from them going forward.
  • The event, held for the third time, was presented by the retail think tank known as PSFK, and featured talks with a couple of dozen retail industry leaders.
  • The consumer electronics field wasn’t particularly well-represented, but the event nevertheless offered lessons for CE retailers.
PSFK founder Piers Fawkes
Lessons Learned Even when there were technical difficulties on the show’s second day, and the start of the main live stream was delayed by more than a half hour, the organizers drew lessons from it. “Speaking of tech challenges, this is one of the things we continually talk about at PSFK,” Scott Lachut, a partner at PSFK, said in a chat window, as participants waited for the program to continue. “So much is discussed around bringing tech into the store experience, but if it doesn’t work or add value, it can negatively impact the customer experience… As we troubleshoot, this reminds me of the challenge of customer service for so many companies today.” Most of the key sessions held at Retail Innovation Week have been archived at the event’s YouTube channel.