The store is back. That was the key takeaway from day one of the fourth annual Shoptalk retail conference at The Venetian in Las Vegas where nearly 9,000 industry types are on hand for what is shaping up to be a “revenge of brick and mortar” edition of the conference.

After years of the story being all about e-commerce, retailers seem to be rediscovering the store as a place to engage, educate and above all, experiment. Agility seems to be the new buzzword in physical retail, and several speakers talked about how their companies are testing out concepts, iterating, learning and not being afraid to fail.

After a Vegas style opening act with a fire baton juggler and remarks from conference founder Anil Aggarwal calling for bold reinvention of the industry, Nordstrom Co-President Erik Nordstrom took the stage for a conversation with Courtney Reagan, Retail Reporter, CNBC to share the company’s strategy, blending elements of the traditional with this new agile approach. “It’s all about serving the customer better, and what physical assets we can bring to bear in a local market,” he said.

That’s why even as the company is building a traditional store in New York City (“the biggest investment in the history of our business,” said Nordstrom) it is also experimenting in the Los Angeles area with three small footprint, inventory-free Nordstrom Local stores.

The store functions as a click-to-pickup location for the company’s e-commerce business, which accounts for 30 percent of sales, as well as a drop off point for returns. “We’ve learned a ton,” Nordstrom said. “In a smaller store with less merchandise on display, it’s easier to convey all the services we offer.” 

For example, the company employs the most tailors in North America, yet we learned most customers don’t even know they offer alterations. By putting it up front, it becomes another customer engagement point. Even accepting returns is an engagement point, and  the company has benefitted by getting returns back faster because people have more flexibility in how they choose to return merchandise.

Nordstrom wasn’t the only one to see returns as an opportunity. Amy Eschliman, SVP/GM of E-commerce at Sephora spoke of the company’s efforts to get store personnel to see e-commerce returns not as a negative to their store sales, but as an opportunity to help the customer find what they really want and educate them on the product. 

That’s engagement 1.0. Mark Berry, EVP, US, Ipsos Marketing spoke briefly on engagement 2.0, which he says will transform the way retailers think about the many touchpoints of omnichannel commerce. Recent work at the Ipsos Behavioral Science Think Tanks at Yale and Duke University will help merchants understand not just what is behind clicks, buys or store visits, but why—the social and emotional motivations that make people react and respond. One sample research result: People order fries more often when there’s a salad offered with the meal than if there is no healthy choice with the meal.

Ken Cassar, Principal Analyst and Vice President at Rakuten Intelligence presented research on shipping that also pointed to how a retailer can get a leg up. 

According to their analysis of data from emailed receipts from a wide variety of retailers, click and carry business is up 5 percent from 22 to 27 percent of sales. Click and carry has improved dramatically in the past couple years, to the point where having physical stores to fulfill orders is proving valuable. Retailers are also starting to find value in stores as local shipping hubs. “If you’re not thinking strategically about fulfillment, you’re not thinking strategically about e-commerce,” said Cassar.

Omnichannel is still a work in progress, but it feels like there’s a shift in focus. Brick and mortar retailers have gone from catching up digitally and are beginning to create sophisticated experiences where physical retail plays a leading role. And, e-commerce sellers are hopping into stores aided by vendors providing turnkey stores they can pop up in or just use to gain a physical presence a la Nordstrom Local.

Either way, everyone seems to be reawakening to the possibilities of the store. “Let the space tell the story,” advised Piers Fawkes, Founder, PSFK in his session, A New Decade of Store Experience Design. “Online can’t compete with the five senses.”

At Shoptalk this week? Be sure to stop by our productivity lounge (#2845) to connect, recharge and grab some Amazon Pay swag.