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Six Conversations That Changed My Perspective on Retail

Ever notice how, just when you think you are doing pretty well – just when you're feeling like maybe you have things figured out – life humbles you? I've been making my living in retail technology for almost 30 years now, and until a couple of months ago, I was definitely feeling like I had figured out most things retail tech. Then I started working on a new podcast series for Aptos.

For the series, my colleague Nikki Baird and I were slated to interview six people with expertise and to (hopefully!) get their point of view on the future of retail. So we searched for good interview subjects, scheduled our interviews and began preparing for the conversations.

And that's when life served me my latest helping of humble pie. I was positively gob smacked by these people. These were smart, interesting people. People with a point of view on exactly what it will take to thrive in the future of retail. People who reshaped my perspective on the future of this industry I have spent most of my adult lifetime getting to know.

I was moved – and yes, humbled – by their passion, by their experiences and by their innate ability to coalesce all that expertise into insightful and impactful advice. No small feat, this. Most of my friends would probably tell you if asked that I am a thoughtful and insightful communicator. And I sincerely hope they are right. But what those friends don't know is just how hard I have to work, how hard I have to prepare, to be thoughtful and insightful. Heck, I barely know how to speak without a PowerPoint deck in my hands anymore. And blog posts like these? They require at least three rewrites before I will even think about submitting them to my razor-sharp editor.

So I thought it only fitting that I share with you a few of the many highlights from these six deeply informative conversations that changed my perspective on the future of retail – and maybe my perspective on myself as well.

Episode 1: Delighting Customers – Far Easier Said than Done

Our first conversation was with Gabriela Baiter, founder and creative director of Whereabout Studio. We wanted to hear her perspective on a time-tested retail mantra that has recently become elusive to many brands: consistently delighting customers. I had worked with Gabriela before, so I knew the breadth of her experience and was not surprised by how many insights she brought to the interview. Here are just a few of the highlights I found particularly impactful:

"In the past year, we have seen a real shift in retail, from surprising customers with Instagrammable moments to surprising customers with impeccable service design that provides real value to the customer. When you can do that, the connection goes far deeper than shopping alone."

"I am a fan of experience per square foot – a blended metric across all channels and properties that you own. What I want to know is how well my store associates are being utilized to provide the right information to our customers as they walk into the store, and to follow them throughout their journey through to conversion, no matter where they buy."

Later in the conversation, Gabriela, an experienced pop-up architect, shared excellent advice on creating temporary experiences that surprise, delight and inspire customers to come back to the brand time and again.

RELATED CONTENT: View our interactive iPaper to see examples of retailers that have differentiated by identifying their ideal customers and crafting relevant and immersive experiences that align with their wants, their needs and even their core values.

Episode 02: Building a Digital-First Brand

Jeff Fromm, president of Future Cast, brought well-informed and well-formed insights to our second interview. He is a tireless student of generational tendencies, tastes and trends, and he applies that knowledge in ways designed to help brands build preference with each generation. During our interview, Jeff shared several insights that will be priceless to any marketers hoping to create affinity with millennials and centennials:

"When a brand gets credit from young consumers for its purpose, they typically earn a 10% premium at the shelf."

"When consumers are told something about a brand's values, it affects how they feel about everything else (from that brand). Pizza tastes better to consumers who believe in the pizza parlor's purpose."

Jeff shared more of his thoughts on brands – big and small – that are attempting to pursue purpose, with some great insights on exactly what is working well and what isn't. Listen to the full interview for more.

RELATED CONTENT: In our second iPaper, "Be Digital First," we explore the four core practices leading digital-first businesses have embraced to turn their categories, and the industry at large, upside down.

Episode 03: Creating Irrational Loyalty

Without a doubt, the most entertaining of these conversations was our interview with Deb Gabor, brand expert, author and founder of Sol Marketing. The title of her first book – "Branding Is Sex: Get Your Customers Laid and Sell the Hell Out of Anything" – tells you a great deal about this wildly interesting conversation. Deb sets a very high bar for brands aspiring to earn sustainable customer loyalty, as these highlights indicate:

"Brands are like magnets that use values and beliefs to attract people who share those values and beliefs."

"Consumers need a relationship with a brand that elevates their self-concept and makes them feel like a hero in their own story…and helps them win at life."

"Consumers today expect that brands will show up with their values and beliefs on display."

During our interview, Deb also talked at length about the importance of staying true to yourself, and she described several ways brands can evolve to become more purpose-driven.

RELATED CONTENT: In our third iPaper, "Find Your Tribe," we explore how brands like aerie, Huckberry and Sephora are finding their tribe in a post-demographic world.

Episode 04: Scale Globally by Connecting Locally

Our fourth interview was with Terry Toland, an associate at A.T. Kearney's Global Business Policy Council. His deep foreign policy experience lent a fascinating new perspective to the conversation. He offered his expert opinion on how retailers can effectively scale their business by connecting locally with a variety of new customers, touching on how the shift from globalization to multi-localism is forcing brands to reconsider the way they operate in other countries.

"Opening new markets today requires taking into account – and adapting to – a broad range of local characteristics (beyond demographics), including political risks, policy frameworks and diverse economic conditions."

"Customers everywhere are expecting not only localized experiences but localized products."

Terry's experience with foreign policy really shaped much of our discussion, and it forced me to look at retail expansion strategies through an entirely new lens. I highly recommend giving the full interview a listen.

RELATED CONTENT: Our fourth iPaper digs deep into why it's important that retailers think global from day one, that they find their tribe wherever they are in the world and that they are prepared to compete against global brands in every market.

Episode 05: Foster an Innovation Mindset

In this episode, we were joined by Scott Emmons, CIO at Memomi, where he oversees digital mirror and AR/VR experiences. Previously, he founded the innovation lab at Neiman Marcus Group, using it to elevate technology innovation to become a core value at the company. During our wide-ranging conversation, Scott explained how enterprises can foster an innovation mindset and create real, lasting value for customers, despite the typical pitfalls.

"To create an innovation culture, you have to be willing to invest in finding the next big thing as well as executing the next big thing."

"It's easy to say ‘failing fast is good,' but you have to adopt a mindset where you stop calling experiments failures."

Scott spent a great deal of our conversation sharing his expertise on creating innovative culture, and he shared many great insights for any retailer attempting this culture shift.

Episode 06: Secrets to Developing Tech DNA

In the sixth and final episode of the series, I had the opportunity to interview John Hazen, chief digital officer at Boot Barn. From his inauspicious start running e-commerce after being "discovered" on his skateboard in the company parking lot, John has become an omnichannel thought leader in luxury fashion and apparel. During our conversation, we explored how to change the culture of a company by embedding technology from the get-go and instilling a "fail fast" mentality to create momentum for change.

"Hire young people. Kids coming out of school now really do have digital in their DNA and they will bring an entirely new mindset to your business."

"Sometimes you have to just start. It may create tension to try something new without all the specs, but with digital projects, sometimes you need to make it up along the way. If you try to wireframe and document everything you want your website to do, you will change three-quarters of it along the way."

John has so many interesting technology stories to share, and during our full conversation he expanded on many of those stories to deliver valuable lessons learned as he developed tech DNA in his own enterprises.

RELATED CONTENT: In our final iPaper of the series, we explain why technology can't just simply exist within your retail organization. In order to thrive in a constantly disruptive climate, technology must be embedded company-wide.

Share Your Thoughts

While these are a few of the perspectives that made me stop, think and rethink my views on the future of retail, I'm curious to hear which insights struck a chord with you.

Drop me a line on LinkedIn or at with your thoughts.