Checking the social media pulse of world retailers
October 13, 2013
I just returned to Denmark after three days at the World Retail Congress (@WRC) 2013 in Paris. The main purpose for my visit was to discover where global retailers are in their understanding of social media implications on the B2C market. I also hoped to network with interesting leading profiles in social media thinking, but the outcome was unfortunately limited. Attending the award dinner was too costly, and no discount coupons were given, so only rush-networking was allowed between the sessions. However, there are three takeaways I want to share with you that particularly relate to my research:
Is social media on the retailers’ agenda?
The digital impact on B2C was so strong that it was the dominating theme on the three-day long programme. But social media was primarily talked of as yet another channel, however potentially impactful. Nicola Mendelsohn, the VP of EMEA, Facebook, was also invited to talk about ‘reaching the connected consumer’. Her very professional presentation stressed that consumers have integrated social media in their lives to such an extent that it is an obvious opportunity for retailers who want to become part of their customers’ lives. Another advantage of social media was how social media analysis could provide big data input for retailers and as such empower the retailer more than empowering the consumer. So yes, social media is a large player in the changing market, but still it is seen as a channel from which retailers can gain more customer knowledge and sell more products. Even though many of the large retailers had the digital interwoven in their business models, it was not socially driven. However, they seem to be puzzling with the issue of how the consumer can become more central to strategic decision-making. Let’s see, there might be something new on that next year?
Are retailers starting to think ‘out of the channel’?
First of all there was a general acknowledgment of social media as a technology that will change the way we do business. They constantly talked about ‘fundamental change’ and ‘rethinking the business.’ Mark Lewis, the Online Director of UK Department Store Group, expressed that the new technologies are changing fundamentally how people shop. In consequence, retailers cannot just continue on the same path of business practice. Customers no longer distinguish between online and offline, so it is time for retailers to take that point into account. In this stream, we got the most entertaining and perhaps honest input by Jacques-Antoine Granjon, CEO and Founder of vente-privee.com. He stated that consumers want good offers and that is what eventually drives them. To retailers, it is a question of stimulating the consumers emotionally and innovate your business. Particularly interesting to my study of social media strategy was the managers’ language use: the most dominating words at the conference were ‘omnichannel’ and ‘multichannel’. Channel convergence and ‘seamless integration’ were the means by which retailers are going to meet this retail paradigm change. I see this as a reflection of a more or less unaltered mindset (they still think in channels). However, a few speakers pointed out the retailers ought to think beyond the channel comprehension, but no guidelines were given on how to do that.
Did I get a future vision of retail?
The main statement was that retail will change considerably in the next ten years, more than it has for the past fifty years – which makes competition even harder! The main concern was how retailers can sustain growth in the future by all digital and non-digital means. Steve Power Brown, Chief Evangelist and Futurist at Intel (mind the fabulous title) gave an interesting presentation on the potentials of vibrant data and future trends, which I found to be the most visionary and interesting. I hope that they will send me their book as promised. Sandy Douglas, Global CCO at the Coca-Cola company, and Ian Cheshire, Group CEO, at Kingfisher talked about retailing in a flat world. The future prospects were about expanding to emerging markets such as Africa and Latin America through online retailing – not the kind of sustainable world vision I hoped for.
There were a few speakers on sustainability and CSR. I attended a stream called ‘Corporate responsibility – a business imperative: building trust: the socially conscience consumer’. It might have been the unappetizingly long title, cause there were more empty than taken seats in the little room. The subject was apparently not an imperative for the absent 1370 retails who went elsewhere. The panel ‘discussion’ between Arvind Singhal, Chairman at Technopak, Marko Janhunen, VP, Public affairs and CR at UPM, Dr Gordon Campbell, MD at Spar International, Luke Jensen, Group Development Director, Sainsbury’s and Andy York, Ethical Trading Manager, N Brown Group were more a presentation of the positive initiatives taken by the companies in African villages and textile factories. While one of the participants, whose company was having their garments produces in Bangladesh trumpeted ‘Clothes should not be at the expense of any worker’s life’, a factory fire in Bangladesh had just taken 10 more lives.
To wrap up, overall I got what I came for, namely to take the pulse of today’s global retailers represented by the 1400 attendants. First, social media was on the agenda, not social business, stressing the media more than the social element. Second, retailers seem to understand that considerable changes are taking place, but to me they still wear the same old spectacles, and therefore miss the chance of re-thinking retail to cope with future challenges. I also doubt that they are ready to fully explore the social dynamics that might make the difference. Third, the visions presented were not particularly visionary, in fact it was a bit scary to see that they still keep the traditional growth course, just being crafted with new digital ‘navigation’ systems. These large retailers should act as role models for the majority group of small- and medium sized retailers that were not represented at the congress. Let’s hope the small businesses will take the lead then.
The whole conference setup was based on traditional one-way communication forms and did not leave room for critical discussions or mutual learning among the participants (in that sense they were not listening to their customers and did not manage to practice what they preached, which is a shame). No rethinking here either. Even though they encouraged the participants to twitter during the conference, the wifi was over-exhausted and I did not succeed once to leave a question or comment. Thank God I have my blog then 😉