The following is the interview with Carol Spieckerman, an internationally-recognized authority on retail and brand positioning. She specializes in future-proofing her clients’ retail strategies and positioning them for high-volume success with key retail decision-makers and influencers. As president and CEO of Spieckerman Retail, she tracks Retail Trajectories that cut across categories, tiers, environments and borders and transforms them into actionable strategies for her brand marketing, agency, licensing, and technology clients.
Carol is a regular contributor to leading retail and business media that include Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Forbes, Dealerscope, Women’s Wear Daily, Bloomberg Business Week, Private Label Buyer and Retail Wire.
1. Today you are a renowned retail strategist, speaker, coach, and president of Spieckerman Retail. How did this journey start for you, and what transformations have you gone through over the years to succeed?
I started Spieckerman Retail in 2000 after years of building multi-million-dollar businesses from the ground up and managing teams for leading brand marketers, licensees, and private brand providers. I loved learning every aspect of the business and had a knack for seeing ahead and connecting retail dynamics across categories, business models, and channels. I’ve parlayed that understanding into a consulting, speaking, and training practice that helps retail-focused companies communicate their value and thought leadership while efficiently accelerating business development. For me, retail has always been a big tent, and the evolution of my business reflects that. Initially, my work focused on providing positioning and business development consulting to brand marketers. Since that time, my clients have expanded to include technology companies, solution, and service providers. I now provide retail-focused executive leadership, communications, and corporate affairs advice to these companies and conduct presentations and trainings at corporate and industry events around the world.
2. Running down the retail history, what was the golden era of the industry? What is your favorite retail period to work in?
I love retail history, and I think it’s important to have historical context for what is happening now. From that perspective, there is something to like about every era, but the 90s were when the pace really picked up, and the seeds of change were planted. There was a lot of retail consolidation back then, particularly in the department store sector, mass retailers were building strength, and power was rapidly shifting away from suppliers. Amazon launched its empire-building aspirations during this time, and Walmart achieved its ranking as the US’ top retailer. These and other 90s-era dynamics went on to influence retail for years and put multiple modern-day movements in motion.
3. What technologies do you find the most powerful for retailers to implement in-store and within the organization?
There are many! Contactless payment solutions are proliferating and should ramp up as shoppers return to stores with the expectation of having safe self-serve options. Augmented and virtual reality will accelerate self-service media, giving shoppers the ability to run simulations and product placement scenarios while in stores. Ever-more-sophisticated artificial intelligence capabilities will allow retailers to parse data and optimize everything from traffic patterns to inventory shifts and workforce management. I would place AI adoption at the top of the list even though it is still in the very early stages. Retailers are building algorithms that combine store-level sales, weather, and local event variables to optimize stock levels. This type of common-sense application of AI is a logical starting point for retailers because it drives results fairly quickly and has ripple effects that benefit employees and even suppliers.
4. Listing the areas that retailers should improve with advanced technologies, what would be the top 3? What trends/anti-trends stand behind the need?
Customer experience may be the most exciting aspect to speculate on yet total inventory management, workforce management, and customer journey integration/insight are the basic need. All three have a direct impact on profitability.
5. Continuing the topic of trends, which have endured the pandemic and remain actual in the post-CV times? According to your market observations, have retailers become more enthusiastic about novelties in the industry?
The retailers that made it through the pandemic haven’t been standing still, and consumers have adopted new behaviors. As brick and mortar shopping ramps up again, three themes will carry through:
Multi-format forays – almost every retailer is a multi-format operator these days, even those defined by a singular format in the past. Former “big box” retailers like Walmart are operating small, medium, and large formats as well as pick-up and drive-through locations. Target is operating urban and college stores. Dollar General has been testing urban formats and concepts targeted to higher-income shoppers. Tesco continues to leverage format expansion as a growth vehicle. The multi-format movement will continue to accelerate and evolve in a post-COVID world.
Flagships will fly – in contrast to the small format movement that has gained traction over the years, flagship stores will proliferate as more brands seek to own their destiny by opening stores and as digital natives seek to make a strong brick and mortar statement without investing in large-scale footprints. Even during the pandemic, retailers like RH (formerly Restoration Hardware) were making big bets on lavish flagship stores, and they are paying off. We will see an ongoing contrast between extreme small-format efficiency and brand storytelling through flagship locations.
From unplanned to intentional – from a behavioral standpoint, even as shoppers feel safer returning to stores, old habits will die hard. The rush to online shopping during COVID-19 acclimated massive numbers of consumers to conducting research and comparing prices. Shoppers will continue to be well-informed and deliberate when they shop in stores, making it critical for retailers to up their games across store layout, visual merchandising, and convenient check-out. Investing in practical, helpful tools like mobile navigational assistance will help retailers hold on to customers and increase basket size.
6. COVID dramatically boosted eCommerce, which is predicted to remain in the “new normal.” Yet, what is the new role of brick-and-mortar? What retailers will have to get back to diversify their presence with offline stores?
Brick and mortar will be the new frontier, serving new purposes through innovative formats and technologies. Automation will encroach, and higher levels of technological savvy will be required of store associates. Stores will be further integrated with online and product assortments and will continue to be optimized as retailers gauge which categories and products are better suited to eCommerce. In general, retailers now realize that true scale isn’t achieved in a single channel. Although safety has taken precedence throughout 2020 and 2021, convenience will once again take center stage in 2022 and beyond. Smart retailers will continue building their convenience arsenals rather than curtail choice and steer shoppers into limited options.
7. How do you envision the “client-retailer” relationship that retailers should aspire to?
When it comes to retailer/supplier relationships, most of the aspiration falls on the supplier side (going back to the power shift I mentioned earlier). Just as retailers have learned that they must provide choice, smart suppliers will do the same in their relationships with retailers. The good news for suppliers of all kinds (products, brands, solutions, and services) is that retailers no longer think they can do everything themselves, nor do they want to. Increasingly, retailers are looking to partner with companies that can accelerate innovation and provide quick entry into new markets and categories. Supplier companies should research retailers’ current in-house capabilities, partnerships, and acquisitions to identify and pursue realistic opportunities.
8. What’s the next big thing(s) in retail?
In general, the next big thing in retail will be the digital rethinking of brick and mortar. The COVID crisis is by no means over on a global scale, yet even a modest return to brick-and-mortar shopping presents a massive opportunity for retailers. Retailers will continue to explore how technologies like augmented and virtual reality can bring store shopping experiences to life.
9. What are your tips to retailers that recover and look to attract new and retaining old customers?
My advice to retailers is to offer options across every aspect of the business, from payment solutions to convenience, to new formats, solutions, and services. The more choices consumers have, the greater the likelihood that they will continue to support a given retailer’s platform. I caution retailers not to take choice too far when it comes to category expansion, however. As online marketplaces have proliferated, retailers are in real danger of not standing for anything. If everyone is selling the same categories, it becomes a race to the bottom on price.
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