My Retail’s Digital Summit Highlights

This year’s Retail’s Digital Summit once again showcased both the “fierce urgency of now” in must-do innovation, as well as what’s emerging of increasing importance in the not too distant future.

To start, let’s recap a few key themes that just about every retailer must be concerned with today.

HSNi CEO Mindy Grossman on stage at Retail’s Digital Summit

Boundaryless Retail

HSNi CEO Mindy Grossman reminded us that what many call “omnichannel” retail is transcending to “boundaryless” retail: the notion that retailers need to focus less on attracting customers to their own points of sale and instead must meet them wherever, whenever and however they wish to engage. My take is that this has been evident for quite some time, but retailers are at long last starting to wake up to this reality.

The Digital-first Customer Journey

Numerous speakers — and multiple vendors in the extensive EXPO — highlighted how it’s often the case that the consumer initiates (and often completes) their path to purchase through a digital channel. And with the increasing — and nearly pervasive — use of smart devices, more and more a mobile device is becoming the front door to the store.

Silos Belong on Farms

Call it “omnichannel” or “seamless integration” or “customer-centricity;” the fact is that doing it well requires the breaking down of data, technology and organizational silos. Failure to get this right is leaving more and more brands behind.

Content and Commerce Collide

It’s not new to hear that “content is king” but content and commerce are intersecting in new and important ways, be that through blogs and YouTube (the dramatic impact of beauty bloggers was highlighted in multiple sessions) or Pinterest and Instagram.

The Rise of the Robots

Artificial intelligence, neural networks and machine learning cropped up as drivers of predictive analytic solutions and as support to greater differentiation through enhanced product curation and marketing personalization. The theoretical is now starting to be made real.

Amazon and Avoiding the Race to the Bottom

Any discussion of digital retail is far from complete without mentioning the 800-pound gorilla of the industry. The fast-growing behemoth was alluded to in nearly every discussion: from its impact on creating an expectation of “frictionless” retail to its planned expansion with hundred of new physical stores and its effect on shrinking margin rates. The smart players were thinking of ways to differentiate themselves; others seemed to be chasing their tails by engaging in the proverbial “race to the bottom.” I found myself quoting my friend Seth Godin to other attendees more than once: “the problem with a race to the bottom is that you might win.”

There was also plenty of discussion around longer-term innovation that held the potential for significant future disruption. In what I found to be the most intriguing talk of the conference, noted comedian and podcaster Marc Maron interviewed renowned physicist Michio Kaku. I can’t possibly do service to every fascinating tidbit they covered, but I will mention two.

The first was what Dr. Kaku referred to as “perfect capitalism.” In his view, future advances in technology will allow for the stripping out of inefficiency in supply and demand. Consumers will easily know who has the best and cheapest product. Suppliers will know how to best reach target customers and produce product to precise specifications and need. The friction inherent in the buying process will be completely eliminated.

The second will be the broad adoption of greatly improved virtual and augmented reality. The implications here are of course vast. One particularly juicy possibility was the notion that we would have the internet in our contact lens, making the possibility of walking through a mall without leaving our home a reality and reducing the process of buying a product to a simple blink.

While widespread adoption is still years away, Dr. Kaku pointed out that it has become commonplace for many companies to under-estimate how quickly disruptive technologies can take hold.