If Sunday’s Shoptalk was about falling in love with stores again, Monday was about marriage—between art and science, theater and technology, data and the personal touch--as the Venetian in Las Vegas played host to tales of an emerging retail renaissance.

How welcome is this? Twenty minutes into a keynote presentation by Helena Foulkes, CEO of Hudson’s Bay Company, one listener excitedly remarked, “She hasn’t said the word digital once.”

Foulkes came to HBC after 20 years at CVS for the chance to “rewrite the story of the department store,” she said. The formula includes theater, excitement, and personalized service, and the crown jewel is the newly remodeled Saks Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. The store features an expanded spa, expansive handbag boutique, upscale brand boutiques, and an outlet of L’Avenue restaurant--the first one outside Paris. The centerpiece is a Rem Koolhaas-designed escalator. A hole was cut through the middle of the building to accommodate it, opening and brightening the space as bonus. 

Roger Rawlins, CEO of DSW, shared how that company is reinventing its stores in order to build an emotional connection with the customer. The aim is to sell not just the shoe, but everything around the shoe, from orthotics and repairs to pedicures, naturally. In keeping with the agility theme running through so many of the presentations, DSW has an incubator of sorts where it is testing out new concepts on a small scale, and it found success with in-store nail salons, which Rawlins said are bringing in more wallets and younger customers. DSW plans to expand them to more stores.

Nilam Ganenthiran, Chief Business Officer at Instacart, which describes itself as a tech and logistics platform for grocery stores, shared how he sees the grocery stores following that same trend. According to Ganenthiran, just three percent of grocery purchases are made online. He predicts that in a few years one in five transactions will happen online.

“The grocery store of the past is designed for people to walk in, get what they need and get out. It was not designed for entertainment, as a meeting place or a place for online fulfillment,” he said.

Grocers, he says, are reorganizing their stores into ecommerce and non-ecommerce areas, which they are trying to make as beautiful as possible.

Make no mistake though—retailers are investing just as heavily in technology as they are in bricks and mortar infrastructure.

At Saks, associates are empowered to approach clienteling with an entrepreneurial mindset. Each has a profile page on the store website, which they update daily, curating their favorite items and looks. They are equipped with a number of digital tools to manage client activity and encouraged to build their personal brand on Instagram -- selling there as well. The goal is to position themselves, and Saks, as a style maker.

Even Instacart is helping improve stores, bringing its data science and engineering skills to help grocers with experiments to shave minutes and seconds out of in-store shopping. “We do a lot of experiments really fast. We scrap what doesn’t work and double down on what does,” Ganenthiran said.

Frans Muller, President & CEO of Ahold Delhaize showed off the giant touch screens it has in some of its stores. Customers can use them for everything from finding wine and cheese pairings to finding nutrition information on products.

And, a session on personalization drew a huge crowd, with scores of attendees leaning against the walls, sitting cross-legged on the floor and spilling out into the hallway.

Qubit Co-Founder and CTO Emre Baran opened the session by defining what personalization is—and isn’t. “It’s not just inserting a person’s name on an email template. It’s figuring out who’s going to want what, when, and why,” he said.

Jana Eggers, CEO of Nara Logistics, put it a bit differently. Citing data that shows searches the including the term “best for me” are on the rise. She explained that personalization is about helping customers sift through the assortment to find what’s best for them. “It can’t just be about pushing what we want to sell. It has to resonate,” she said.

Christian Selchau-Hansen, CEO, Formation.ai, offered a hands-on demo. He asked everyone to open their Starbucks app to review their offers and compare them to their neighbor’s offers. All offers are different, and completely relevant to each individual.

Personalization is a step change, he said, offering merchants a way to reach customers at the individual level with an understanding that goes way beyond classical demographics. “You can create millions of individualized offers for a fraction of the cost of a segmented approach,” he said.

The session on image and facial recognition wasn’t quite so oversubscribed, but the tech was more futuristic.

Lihi Pinto, Co-founder and CMO of Syte, described how she fell in love with a red dress in a picture and couldn’t find it online using keywords. That led her to found Syte, a visual search engine for retail. Using the Syte app, you upload a picture of an item you like and it returns results of similar looking items. 

Ebay VP and Chief Architect Sanjeev Katariya describe how the auction site is using image recognition. The first use case is bringing text and images together to help better search through eBay’s 1.2 billion global listings. And, you can also upload a picture of something you like and find similar items on eBay.

James Crawford, Founder and CEO of Orbital insights described how his company is combining satellite imagery of streets and parking lots, car counts, and cell phone counts to do analysis of economic activity in a geographic area with a stunning level of granularity—it can go down to a block by block view in NYC. The aim is to help retailers identify where customers come from to get to your store, and what the impact of local conditions such as increased traffic and housing construction might have on a retail store.

For example, if traffic is up two percent on your street, cars in the parking lot are up three percent at your competitor’s location nearby, and down one percent at your location, there’s a good chance there might be a problem inside your store.

Peter Trepp, CEO of FaceFirst talked about how face recognition can be used to help retailers recognize when their best customers come into the store. Humans, he said, have the capability to remember and match 1000-1200 faces. Artificial intelligence can now compare a face to 75 million templates and find a match in less than one second with 98 percent accuracy

In a private session, Kris Zanuldin, Head of Connected Commerce at Amazon Pay, talked about voice interfaces as an entrée into the world of ambient computing, where digital assistants powered by AI can do all kinds of things for us. An Alexa enabled microwave, for example, not only can be activated by your voice while your hands are otherwise occupied; it also does all the work to figure out time and power level for whatever you’re cooking. No more need for the ‘quick minute’ button.

It’s a mistake to view voice as just another channel Zanuldin said, because a voice experience could encompass any number of “channels” without the customer even knowing it. For example, you could set up a date night using Alexa, ordering movie tickets, making a dinner reservation and finding a parking space. If you did that online or on your mobile phone, that would mean using three different websites or apps.

Channels are disappearing, or at least the silos around them are falling. The word omnichannel, seemingly on everyone’s lips just a few years ago, was barely heard today. That may be the best evidence of the marriage that has taken place between online and offline worlds—no Vegas wedding chapel required.

Retailers are now bringing together the best of online and offline with confidence, flair and a renewed focus on the customer. Perhaps Instacart’s Ganethiran summed it up best. When asked what happens to the store when more customers go online, he said, “There is no online customer or in-store customer. There is just a customer.” 

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