Retailers   //   March 4, 2019

At Shoptalk, it’s survival of the fittest

Retailers are careening towards a reckoning. At Shoptalk, that overarching message played out in interviews and in conversations between sessions. On Sunday, Erik Nordstrom, the retailer’s president, laid out his company’s shortcomings head-on. It needs to be more agile, he said, and it needs to nail a local store strategy that drives physical retail sales, because physical retail sales drive online sales. The company missed holiday sales goals, so Nordstrom laid out why that happened and what they planned to do to fix it: Better connect digital and physical sales, so that customer convenience underwrote every transaction. Wearing blue Allbirds, Nordstrom also emphasized that the company was looking to online brands to strengthen its product selection and bring customers in stores.

“Our focus is on being the best brand partner we can be,” said Nordstrom. “We haven’t moved fast enough.”

Macy’s chief digital officer, Jill Ramsey, brought in last summer to “change the metabolism of the company,” focused on Macy’s push to evolve its business through its mobile app. New features like an improved mobile wallet, a personal styling service and a social platform that uses in-store employees as micro-influencers are at the center of the retailer’s strategy. But Ramsey, a new hire meant to signal a new way of thinking for Macy’s, relied on retailer-takes-on-tech taglines that would have easily fit in at a conference in 2009. Saying “digital is our flagship” and pointing to a PowerPoint slide featuring a woman wearing a VR headset gives off the message that Macy’s is still in the same holding pattern, not making meaningful change.

Rachel Shechtman, the founder of experiential retail store Story and now Macy’s brand experiences officer since her company was acquired by Macy’s last year, was brought out on stage to show what newness Macy’s physical locations have coming up. It’s a different bet than Nordstrom is making on individual digital brands, and it’s still unclear if it will pay off.

With varying degrees of success, retailers are all around trying to send the message that they’re changing, evolving, responding to industry pressures and customer needs, galvanizing listeners into believing that they’re not standing still. As always, Amazon is a looming presence, sometimes addressed head-on, sometimes unspoken. It’s not just the physical incumbents like Nordstrom and Macy’s and grocery retailers like Kroger that have to continuously prove themselves. Direct-to-consumer brands, once industry darlings, are being put to the task to prove that they have staying power and can maybe even turn a profit.

On both ends of the spectrum, old and new companies are on a mission to prove retail won’t be a winner-takes-all story.

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