Everybody for Themselves?

I attended Argyle Executive Forum's 2010 Leadership in Retail and Consumer Goods Forum yesterday. I posted update to the Retail Traffic Twitter before my Droid's battery decided to quit on me a couple hours in.

The speakers included a mix of top retail executives and tech folks. Social media and mobile marketing were major points of conversation. Yet a lot of the speakers said they have a hard time quantifying the return on these strategies. Everybody agrees that you've got to explore these technologies because that's what customers want. But I just don't think retailers yet know how to maximize what they're getting here.

I was also struck by the fact that the companies that spoke have done a tremendous amount of work addressing challenges at their respective firms, but the macro analysis of the state of retail and its future did not come through as clearly.

I definitely get the sense that retailers are doing all they can to retain existing customers and acquire new ones. As one executive put it, retailers need to “get to the consumer first, fast and most often.” That's the route to success in an environment overloaded with choices and where information is traded at a dizzying pace.

This includes analyzing consumption patterns at a chain's stores and seeing how spending behaviors have altered in light of the Great Recession. Everyone is trying to understand what's happened with their traditional customers. And that analysis goes down to the level of seeing how the same customers may alter spending habits at different locations. For example, a shopper may visit multiple Talbots locations and exhibit distinct tendencies. As a result, merchandising strategies can be tweaked at different locations. That's invaluable information. And it's something that shopping center owners themselves could gain a lot from knowing.

All of that was great information to hear. And I got the sense from the few retailers that spoke that they are all looking at their customers and their stores in this same way.

I had a tougher time seeing the big picture. And few of the speakers made comments about this. Most talked about their own experiences and strategies. There were not as many observations about whether there has been a secular change in consumer spending behavior.

This is important is because if everyone is just looking at what they're doing and not trying to understand the broader trends, we're more likely to see distortions. Retailers may opt to expand too quickly, for example. If they've been very successful at tackling their own challenges they may get too rosy a view of the overall marketplace and believe they have more room for growth than actually exists. Or else they may end up with the wrong approach to the various channels that are now available to consumers. When retail spending comes back, it won't all come back to brick and mortar locations.

What I saw was just a tiny cross section of retail leadership. Ultimately, I was impressed with how savvy firms have been in adapting to the recession and doing what they can to continue to serve and grow their base of customers. But a little more reflection on the big picture wouldn't have been a bad thing.

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