As news rolls in almost daily of shuttering retailers, it’s hard to see a rosy outlook for the future of retail brands. However, this year’s Retail Ascendant flipped the perspective for many attendees.
Held in New York at the end of April, the programming for this year’s event addressed the issues the retail industry is facing but also painted a picture for how to move forward amidst many store closings. It was clear that the most innovative retailers were the ones succeeding in a complex market, and many offered advice and brought new ideas to the table to reinvigorate legacy brands for how people shop today.
Below, our team recounts their highlights from the event and what insights they gleaned that retailers need to follow to stay relevant with today’s consumers.
Allbirds & Shake Shack: How Customer-First Thinking Propels Smaller Brands Ahead
Jeff Fagel, CMO
One thing was clear at this year’s Retail Ascendant event: disruption is still alive and well in retail with innovators like Allbirds and Shake Shack succeeding by putting their product and consumer at the core of everything they’re doing.
Julie Channing, VP of marketing at Allbirds, a casual footwear brand shaking up the shoe industry with their customer- and product-first approach. Channing shared how selling online and building a brand from scratch forces you to think differently while shaping how the brand is brought to life in every detail of the consumer journey to help sell their products. As an online-only brand, they needed to connect with online consumers, so they worked with YouTube influencers to do “unboxing” videos to show what the product was like in real life. But another key priority was to associate the product with its origin city, San Francisco. One example was partnering with local businesses around San Francisco in adjacent categories, like the local favorite Craftsman and Wolves and taking some color cues from the patisserie’s famous Rebel Within muffin to create a special-edition sneaker.
Another example is Shake Shack, the fast-growing burger chain. As they expanded beyond their base in New York, they didn’t want to lose the local feel that was so important to their cult-following in their native city. “The bigger we get, the smaller we act,” said Edwin Bragg, VP of marketing at Shake Shack. To do this, they partnered with local bakeries and dessert shops to customize their shakes (dubbed “concrete mixers”) with iconic desserts from local businesses in each city. In Philadelphia, they partnered with Federal Doughnuts to make special shakes with doughnut pieces in them, and in Chicago, they worked with Bang Bang Pies to create mixers with whole pieces of pie in them.
Both of these strategies allowed brands to not only expand their growth but stick to their roots and community feel, building a sense of uniqueness for each brand that is hard to replicate.
The Future of Technology Is Here for Retail Marketing
Fiona McIndoe, VP Sales
The technology innovations at this year’s Retail Ascendant were truly incredible. We saw everything from AI, robots and AR to new cognitive tools from IBM Watson, bots and conversational commerce. The tech advancements for the retail shopping experience are here, it’s just a matter of figuring out how they might work for your brand.
One example was from Glasswing Ventures, where Sarah Fey, the managing director, walked us through Jibo, a new robotic concierge for homes that will have a significant impact on transactions and commerce in the home by actually learning about the family or person’s preferences over time and being able to actually interact with the people in the home. An even more interesting tech advancement was from Shiseido, a skincare and makeup company. Shiseido partnered with Microsoft to create a makeup filter for women who telecommute in an effort to solve for the “appearance barrier,” when employees are distracted by their own appearance on-screen, making it difficult to pay attention to the actual meeting. The filter has different settings for the style of makeup they might normally wear, allowing them to enhance their appearance without having to go through the work of actually putting on makeup.
With these advances, retailers’ only limitation is their own capacity for creativity when coming up with new and better consumer engagement experiences.
Evolution and Adaptation Are Necessary to Thrive Today (And for Years to Come)
Matt Leingang, VP Sales West
One of the most prevalent themes at this year’s Retail Ascendant was that many of the technologies that we thought were years off in the future for retail businesses are actually here right now. Things like AI and machine learning are changing how consumers interact with brands, which is forcing retailers to either evolve or dissolve. New, tech-forward business models (such TechStyle Fashion, which houses notable activewear brand Fabletics) are the ones succeeding where many tried-and-true brands struggle to break through.
I was shocked to hear that many of the leaders at well-known traditional retailers know how far behind they still are in technology adoption. They understand how important this business aspect is for them to truly service their customers, but the organizational silos are holding them back. The most successful brands were the ones that have already made investments into tying their departments together across the organization. They accept and even drive constant change within the organization, which is not an easy task for many legacy retail brands with years of history and process. Those willing to push themselves in new directions are the ones growing and thriving.