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Bold Leaders Wanted: Navigating the Waters of Today's Retail Renaissance

Editor's Note: Laura is co-founder of HighStreet Collective, a retail store innovation consultancy. She is a 25-year retail veteran, champion, pioneer and provocateur. Her recent platform for change, LivingRetailLab, is an outcome of a dream to bring store innovation leaders together to ignite measurable, realistic industry evolution in a public, proven forum. Laura will also be a co-host for our upcoming Retail Innovation Safari, presented as part of Engage, our annual user conference. She can be reached at

Walking the streets of New York and the show floor at NRF this year was an exercise in cultural anthropology. On one hand, headlines of retail stores closing and suffering through myriad disruptions are rampant. On the other hand, headlines of transformative technologies, flagships and never-before-seen storefront formats are hitting the wires just as fast!

Clearly, the polarity is as pervasive in retail as it is in the rest of the world. It crept into our office as well, as we came back from the trip as fired up as we were frustrated. We talk about this issue in last month's Q1 2019 Retail Innovation Radar Webinar; feel free to tune in. The behind-the-scenes internal exploration, however, is worth sharing here.

Like many things today, our industry's fate rests squarely on its leaders' shoulders

Despite several recent and well-publicized struggles of brick-and-mortar stalwarts, there are also many examples of retailers embracing smart evolution, market responsiveness, great strategy and creative ideas. There's a litany of new technologies and measurement tools to confidently test and learn. Many of the leaders guiding these companies have no formal industry background, come from a digital background or have a traditional store history, but they all made a conscious choice to ditch the dogma and recreate things their way. They don't care about "how it's done"—they know that it's not working, or they want to try something new. They understand that the only failure is in not trying. They see possibilities and they try them out, knowing full well that people need a reason to get in a car and visit a store.

These leaders also know that once they have an emotionally charged connection with shoppers, those customers will shop them in myriad ways (and the leaders have given them many choices) and will likely be loyal to them. These leaders know better than to measure success through the narrow lens of short-term same-store sales—Wall Street can stay in the dark ages, but this brave new omnichannel world thrives on holistic customer data and transactions. They reside inside both huge, well-known brands and local one-off shops, and we've started calling them our Renaissance Leaders.

And guess who's not bothering them? Amazon.

For years, we've been talking about the way forward—well, the train has now left the station. Brands still discussing how to address their innovation strategy may find that it's just too late…unless they have a leader brave enough to make some bold moves. As Best Buy showed us a few years ago, digging out of a sinking downward spiral is possible. As Renaissance Leaders are proving to us daily, so is reinventing the whole dang thing.

Nowhere is a leader's strength more apparent than at the flagship

Our time in NYC really brought this talk track to life, and it was über apparent within the flagships. Flagships are a reflection of their leaders, as they are the ultimate manifestation of a brand's essence. They should be the top of the rung of all store formats and resonate the feelings, function and possibilities of a retail store's promise.

[caption id="attachment_15454" align="alignnone" width="640"] My partner Ed King and I share the results of our Flagship Radar Innovation Report during our webinar[/caption]

One prime example of this was the new Nike on Fifth. By the time we got to the fourth floor (and there are six!), we had dubbed it the "Disney of Retail Flagships." But it was more than just mind-boggling—it was on brand. See, as people who came from the branding and advertising world, we walk into every store and look at each other and ask, "What is the intention of this store and what core foundational thematic story are they telling?" Nike's vision was clear within the first 100 feet—innovation. Check out our webinar for a video and a deeper dive.

Another fantastic example of a brand that knows who they are and that lives their story loud and proud is Allbirds. Rooted in simple design, comfort, materials from Mother Nature and sustainability, the brand's True North is all about "Creating Things in a Better Way." The store reflects this—tactile stories that deconstruct the origins of their material, two styles, no logos, just two set prices, and high-touch, warm associates. It feels like walking into a story of goodness and sustainability, and the clear and focused leadership behind it is tangible.

To help our leaders help themselves, build an ark

I wasn't able to attend Shoptalk this year, but a great Digiday briefing summed up the status of things as we know it: Retail is now survival of the fittest.

Erik Nordstrom bravely stood on a stage and owned up to his company's mistakes, citing that Nordstrom needs to be more agile, to better connect digital and physical, and to ensure that customer convenience is core to every transaction. He said they didn't move fast enough to be the best brand partner they could be to their customers, and he knows that he needs to turn up the dial. It was honest, humble, real and appreciated.

Which brings me to the most interesting advice I've seen all year, which came from Facebook, of all places! Mark Rabkin, Facebook's VP of Advertising, shared his advice: build an ark. "If you're a direct-to-consumer company that wants to meet the customer where they are, you have to build Noah's Ark teams. You have to put two of every kind of person on one boat at the same time: two marketing people, two data science people, two communications people, two content people. That way one person can brainstorm and innovate while the other plays defense, and you can iterate on a two-week cycle and not a six-months-to-a-year cycle. If you're at that speed, you're going to miss every consumer train that leaves the station."

Sadly, he's right. But we'll add a second layer—a Teflon exterior of data-based measurement and insights that, like a compass, help steer the vessel into brave new waters. As we discuss often, in retail, all challenges are ultimately resolved with revenue. With ROI, opinions become moot and risk becomes reward. Leaders can be questioned without heads rolling because the proof is in the pudding. For this to work, however, one must commit to this new notion of testing quickly, measuring effectively and moving with ridiculous momentum—starting with using Flagships properly and purposefully.

This retail renaissance isn't coming…it's already arrived. Within it are the artists, thinkers, new ideas and voyagers setting the course for an entirely new kind of journey. Also present are those who insist that the world is flat and that bold actions, risk-taking and challenging the natural historical order of things (and kings!) are heresy. This polarity will ultimately lead to the advances that change the way people understand, interpret and reimagine our industry (aka enlightenment!), and we at HighStreet have embraced the polarity as necessary to get us to enlightenment. It's painful, but there are many paths, and many bright lights to steer our journey.