I attended Shoptalk the other week in Vegas (along with 8,000+ other folks!) and came away impressed. The show was huge, energetic, thought-provoking, and exciting all rolled into four jam-packed days. For me, the event kicked off a stream of additional work travel, so it is only now that I can take a breath and reflect on what it all meant.  

If I had to boil my main takeaway from the show it would be this: “Retailers finally get it.” 

  • Every presenter stressed how much retail has changed and will continue to change. The status quo = death.
  • Given the ubiquity of omnichannel, the concept of “channels” is essentially outmoded.
  • Physical stores have a critical role to play in this channel-less world, BUT retailers are scrambling to define exactly what that role will be.  

This is all extremely good news for retail, in my opinion. As an industry, retail is finally confronting the reality of its challenges and has discovered that the best way to win is not hunker down, but to embrace change and use innovation as an advantage. Art Peck, CEO of Gap Inc., followed up the pre-conference announcement that they are closing stores with an on-stage announcement that Gap will be opening new – but different types – of Gap stores. Similarly, the CEO of Build-a-Bear described addressing falling mall traffic by opening newformat stores in non-traditional spaces, such as cruise ships, and stores within stores. Innovation and outside-the-box thinking were everywhere at the show. 

As you might have guessed, I was most intrigued by discussions of how stores are going to change. While there was lots of talk about the role that technology can play in re-invigorating the in-store experience, there was also a pervasive sense that it is the personal, human connection that defines the in-store experience more than anything else. After all, a store without associates is essentially a vending machine. Outside of grocery, I don’t think anyone is saying that a vending machine is future path for stores. Even the most advanced stores out there – Apple stores and Amazon Go – are teaming with associates. The key to the success of these stores is what those associates are – and are not – doing. They aren’t wasting time and energy on low-value activities like checkout. They ARE spending extra time helping customers make better decisions so that can feel confident in the choices they make.  

What I didn’t hear was a consensus on the role of stores (and the in-store experience) in the future. Will stores be important? The answer at Shoptalk was a resounding “yes.” What exactly is the role of stores going to be 5, 10, 20 years from now? Ummm….  

Frankly, I don’t think this is a criticism. This is exciting! As I write this, virtually every retailer in business today is feverishly trying to define the role of their stores and how to make that work financially and at scale. We know stores will matter and that the staff willtoo. But beyond that, it’s the great unknown. We are on the cusp of an unprecedented wave of innovation in stores. Has there ever been a more exciting time to be in retail? I don’t think so, and neither does Shoptalk!