Retail Evolution and Industry Conferences: What’s the Connection?

Maybe ten days ago, I wrote this article that talked about JC Penney’s new pricing policy and strategy and referred you to an article on that strategy and why it might not work. I thought that article had some implications for our industry and I discussed them. 

Now, my ultra-sophisticated research department (thank you dear) has identified another article called “Retailers Rethink Stores to Fight Online Competition.”   It talks about all the things retailers are trying and concludes with a quote that from Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail saying, “If retailers aren’t experimenting, then they are doomed to fail.”
 
The way you’ve heard me put it is, “The biggest risk is not taking a risk at all.” I’m thinking Ms. Liebmann and I would agree.
 
Meanwhile, speaking of retail chaos, my ever vigilant research department also forwarded this article on foreign fashion brands aggressively moving to open retail locations in the U.S. Well, I guess somebody has to fill up all that empty retail space.
 
You know, it’s funny- the suggestions in the above referenced articles seem equally applicable to retailers from Costco down to a 750 square foot specialty shop.
 
Being reactive in a changing environment has often been a bad idea, but now it seems like it’s damned near impossible given the pace of change in retail. You’re on to change number two before you can react to number one. Do what’s right for your own business.
 
That probably includes spending some money on technology, having the best numbers you can have about what sells (and what doesn’t) and the gross margin dollars you earn, taking chances on brands, taking a new hard look on who your competitors are (finding out where else your customers shop would be great), making decisions with an eye to your balance sheet, and not stressing too much about distribution (as the cat is largely out of the bag).
 
Don’t worry so much about what the other guy is doing. I think I might have first suggested that approach back in 2002, when I wrote after the Surf Industry Conference that maybe they should focus on running their own businesses rather than worrying about skateboarding. Ten years later, it holds up pretty well. You can read it here.
 
Speaking of industry conferences, the snow, skate, and surf conferences for the year are history.   I only made it to the skate conference. I’ll do better next year. Assuming the people that run the companies are attending, that is.
 
But here’s the dilemma for me. Let’s call it a suggestion for conference organizers.
 
I am not expecting many calls or emails telling me that I’m wrong about the changes in retail and the speed at which it’s changing. I don’t even expect to get told my “what to do” list is out of line (though if somebody told me that listing them is a hell of a lot easier than doing them, I’d have to agree).
 
But if the retail and competitive environment (with its implications for brands as well as retailers) is changing as much and as quickly as I think we all agree it is, why is it our conferences still have a tendency to feel like membership meetings at a private club?
 
Look, I love seeing friends I’ve known a long time and don’t see that often. It’s low key, low stress, and fun. We have a great time validating each other’s point of view in a non-threatening environment. I want more people there, as both speakers and attendees who will rattle our comfortable cages.
 
Where’s the skateboard buyer from Amazon? How exactly does the offer of ten blanks for $100 end up right next to the branded deck for $48.95?
 
Can we get somebody from PPR who’s not Volcom to talk about their perception of and plans for our industry? Just how many branded stores for their luxury brands are they going to open in the U.S. and who’s their target customer?
 
Is the Chinese manufacturer of soft surfboards there?
 
How about a retail panel made up of representatives from Sports Authority, Target, Costco, and Dick’s? Or maybe Zumiez, Journeys, and Tilly’s.
 
Have companies in our industry moved their production out of China due to higher prices? Let’s put them on a panel and find out where they moved and how it went.
 
How about a sociologist talking about how long, leveraged caused recessions impact consumer attitudes and spending over decades and maybe generations? There are marketing implications that could be valuable right now. Get Neil Howe, one of the authors of The Fourth Turning, which you should all read, as a speaker.
 
It’s possible nobody could afford Mr. Howe. Well, unless of course we had one conference instead of three. And looking at the strategic issues I’m suggesting we should be addressing, maybe that’s not so silly. Consider the overlap across customers in the industry.
 
I want to invite people to conferences who, whether we wish it or not or like it or not, are powerful players in our space but don’t usually attend. I want us to address issues we’re uncomfortable with, or hope will just go away- because they won’t. I don’t want what I already think to be validated because I’m talking only to like-minded people I’ve known a long time.
 
I’d like all these industry players that make us uncomfortable to be there not just as speakers or panelists, but just as participants. I don’t know if they’d want to come or if they’d be interested in telling us the kinds of things we want to know, but we’ll never know until we ask. They’d be a like more likely to come if there was one large conference instead of three.
 
I didn’t have the idea of consolidating conferences in mind until, honestly, the last paragraphs. I know that by raising the idea, I’m blithely stumbling into issues of industry politics, relationships and revenue sources. Yet it seems to make some sense if my premise about the issues we should be addressing at conferences is reasonable.
 
Don’t you agree?  Or not?
 


 

10 replies
  1. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Jeff- great article (as usual). You hit the nail on the head with the private club patting each other on the back for job well done. Seems like you have a pretty easy solution right in front of you. “The Jeff Harbaugh Surf, Skate and Snow Conference”. It could be like the ALL THING D CONFERENCE for our industry.
    I am sure you have enough clout and of course financial backing to do it. I wish you best of luck and can’t wait to attend especially if I am not paying to come.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Jeff,
      Yeah, it’s the “not paying to come” part that gives me pause. Seriously, I’d love to drive that, but I think I’d only want to do it in coordination with other industry groups/companies/association. The goal would be to do a good thing, not create a giant pissing contest. I’m probably being too idealistic.

      Thanks for the comment,
      J.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Michael,
      Figures you’ve already read it. Written in 1995. It’s amazing. Also a bit concerning, as it sounds inevitable and uncontrollable.

      Thanks,
      J.

  2. Rick Casner
    Rick Casner says:

    Good one! Change happens & we’re usually so busy greeting other members of ‘The Club’ or trading rumors we never talk about it. Another small suggestion: eliminate the color coded name tags deliniating ‘Vendor’ vs. ‘Owner Operator’. That’ll spark some unexpected conversations….

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Rick,
      I’m afraid eliminating the tags won’t help- We all already know each other by sight.

      thanks,
      J.

  3. janet
    janet says:

    Love the article Jeff. Lots of food for thought. You are right about the conferences. Too often they are the same old same old. Just an excuse for a party- which is “super fine” when times are great and things are stable. Now with the rodeo world we live in…… we gotta dig deep and accept the fact that there is no more “business as usual.” Climate change, retail change, production change…and more all happening at once……..yee haw….never a dull moment……that’s my 2 cents

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi Janet,
      You forgot technology change, and I imagine there are a few other kinds of change going on that I’ve forgotten too. I think a single conference makes a lot of sense. It’s financially efficient (Though I don’t know how many people who pay for themselves go to all three), and I think it would tend to attract the CEO’s we want there from the industry and they in turn would attract the kind of people I refer to in my article who are interested in our market. Could be a great experience.
      Thanks for the comment,
      j.

  4. JohnBernards
    JohnBernards says:

    You may think you are out ther, but you are right. Your suggested retailers would come if it were one conferences for all came into being. Lots of .luck

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      Hi John,
      Yep, I’m just sitting here waiting for SIMA, IASC, BRA, and, I guess, Transworld who does the snow conference, to call me up and tell me what a great idea it is. Strangely, the phone isn’t ringing much.

      Thanks for the comment,
      J.

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