By Tara Kirkpatrick
Fashion designer Tory Burch gives aspiring retail students her tips for success, then chats and poses for pictures. Executives from Bloomingdales, Costco, Sony and Walmart swap cutting-edge branding strategies. Macy’s President and CEO Terry Lundgren previews his store’s latest marketing campaign.
If there was a Super Bowl of retail, this would be it.
The Global Retailing Conference, a high-wattage annual gathering presented by the University of Arizona’s Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing has placed Tucson at center stage for the country’s captains of industry each year.
Designers Vera Wang, Tommy Hilfiger and Martha Stewart are just a few of the rock-star speakers who have attended in past years, along with retail giants Home Depot, PetSmart, QVC, Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods and countless others granting business professionals and college students’ unparalleled access to the industry’s best and brightest.
“It’s true, the industry comes to Tucson,” said Martha Van Gelder, director of the Terry J. Lundgren Center at the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The center was named after the UA alum in 2005.
The conference, now in its 17th year, began when the center was still the Southwest Retail Center, and it continues today with the high-profile backing of Lundgren.
“The conference has had a cumulative and proven effect in supporting excellence in thought leadership and strategy,” Van Gelder said. “Our partners and sponsors approach the conference through the lens of unique access to senior retail leaders and giving back to the future and excellence in retailing.”
This year’s meeting, held in April at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, brought 325 executives and 175 students together to listen to speakers from Sony, Facebook, Walmart, Polaroid, Costco, Bloomingdales, Hudson’s Bay Company and others.
Burch concluded the conference with her story of success before mixing it up with admiring retail students.
“She is such a designer for our age group, it’s exciting,” said Stephanie McIlroy, a UA junior in the retail school.
“We are here with the leaders of the industry,” added UA junior Fionna Norman. “That could be me someday.”
Said Van Gelder, “Hearing retail luminaries such as (Costco co-founder) Jim Sinegal and Tory Burch tell stories of both triumph and failure gives students a sense of the path upward and commitment needed of those passionate and successful in the industry.”
Lundgren, in his opening conference remarks, told colleagues, “This is where you want to come and recruit,” noting the 37 UA graduates his company recently hired. Indeed, students are told to consider every interaction at this conference, essentially, an interview, Van Gelder said.
“We see the results every year through the development of important new connections, jobs and prospects for our students,” she said.
Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, used this year’s meeting to announce the trade organization’s latest campaign about the importance of retail to the U.S. economy.
According to the This is Retail campaign, which has a companion website at thisisretail.org, retail not only accounts for 42 million U.S. jobs, it’s a career with easy entry and tremendous opportunity for promotion, Shay said.
“You can make a difference right from the start,” he told the audience. “It’s truly a meritocracy. Anything is possible for you.”
Aside from the students, the Global Retailing Conference also challenges business leaders to survive and thrive through evolution. This year’s theme, “Accelerate Your Brand, Get Ahead of Your Shopper,” focused on how to satisfy today’s customer, who now demands constant innovation, meaningful connection and all-hours access through multiple technological channels.
“If you’re not innovating, you’ve lost the conversation,” Shay told the audience.
Highlights from the 2013
Global Retailing Conference
Transforming Macy’s stores into order fulfillment centers is a game-changing strategy that is paying off, Macy’s Lundgren told attendees. “We want to make sure we satisfy our customer in the store and online,” he said. “If a customer walks into the Tucson Mall and doesn’t find the product they want, how do we get it to them?”
Technology enables Macy’s associates to locate the item in another store and have it shipped from there rather than a central warehouse. “I don’t have to buy inventory twice and I can continue to sell inventory from the stores,” he said. “It’s all about how we can get the product into the hands of our customers even sooner.”
Polaroid, a household name thanks to Edwin Land’s camera invention in the mid-1940s, has had to reinvent itself to survive, becoming more of a licensee and marketer of its technology, explained Scott Hardy, company president and CEO.
“There are very few brands that can be classified as a global brand,” Hardy said. “We’ve been able to take that recognition and transform the company.”
Polaroid now boasts a top-selling photo app, a phone popular in Europe, tablet computers and popular Fotobars in shopping centers that let customers print top-quality pictures from social media and their cell phones. Having 40 licensees of Polaroid technology around the globe has enabled the company to “go fast and go hard,” Hardy said.
French cosmetics company Clarins has successfully competed with beauty giants including Estée Lauder thanks to a focus on customer intimacy, said Jonathan Zrihen, president and CEO of Clarins Groupe North America.
“We want customers for life,” he said. “We want loyalty and we strive for it beyond reason.”
Clarins aims to literally touch every customer that walks up to a Clarins counter, showing the customer how to use products, offering skin applications and beauty services in chic, glass-cubed, mini-spas built into unused spaces in stores that already boast Clarins beauty counters.
“Within the store, the quality of spa services is the same as the Clarins spa at Miraval,” Zrihen said. “Once they experience it, they buy more product and tell their friends about it. Yes, it works.”
Walmart connects with 28 million shoppers through its Facebook page, said Wanda Young, VP of media and digital marketing.
“People are the future of retail,” Young said. “Word of mouth works better than any advertising and Facebook has created an amazing base for us.” Working with Facebook Senior Account Manager Kerry Lakin, Walmart has learned that its Facebook fans spend more money at the store, Young said.
Customers today research products on their phone, then come in to the store to touch the product, then go back home and buy it online, Lundgren said. “However the customer wants the product, we are going to give it to him or her.” To that end, Lundgren has created a new chief omnichannel officer, who reports to him on the company’s full technology platform. “I put someone in charge who has a 360-degree view of the customer,” he said.
Access to retail must also be hip and enjoyable, explained Joseph Bona, president of branded environments for CBX, a New York-based branding firm that has recreated stores all over the world. “There’s still something about being with people, about being together,” Bona said. “It’s about creating a value experience.”
CBX redesigned New York’s Duane Reade convenience stores into modern, open spaces with unique, New York-centric packaged products, a weekly newsletter with helpful information including the subway schedule and other features. “The physical store has to be reassessed,” Bona said. “Customers want more.”
Those who attended this year’s conference were pleased with the takeaways.
“I think the caliber of speakers has been amazing,” said Kellie Walejeski, COO of local hosiery and sock maker Royal Bermuda. “The students we’ve engaged with have all been polished, intelligent and well-spoken. It’s very refreshing.”
Nancy Yaeli, senior VP for campus and global partnerships at the UA Alumni Association, said, “I came to the Global Retailing Conference to learn about brand and customer loyalty from the industry’s top experts. Those concepts apply to all industries – including universities and alumni associations – even more so in today’s globally-connected environment.”