Editor's note: The following is a guest post from Christopher Walton, an independent consultant and former vice president, Target Store of the Future.
Retail's version of the Golden Globes, Shoptalk, is right around the corner.
Notice, I didn't say, "Oscars." Despite Jimmy Kimmel's best efforts, the Oscars feel manufactured, even old and staid, while the Golden Globes are where the hippest in Hollywood get together every year.
The retail equivalent of the Golden Globes is Shoptalk. NRF is the Oscars — still the biggest show of the year, but a show trapped in a time warp. I half expect actor Charlton Heston to come back from the dead and keynote the darn thing in 2019.
Shoptalk is different. Frankly Shoptalk has kicked NRF's butt and taken names since it burst onto the scene a few years ago. Not only would we all rather go to Las Vegas in March, as opposed to the frigid cold of New York City in January, but Shoptalk's speaker lineup and overall ethos are just better. The conference feels digital- and innovation-led rather than Fortune 500-led. Shoptalk feels like it is for retailers, while NRF is for the machine.
Now, I consider myself a bit of a Las Vegas expert — I met my wife in a club there one fateful night in 2007 (she's a dentist — don't worry), I got married there and my in-laws have lived there for 40 years. Vegas is like a second home to me.
So coming off my 10 tips for getting the most out of NRF's Big Show for Retail Dive back in January, I figured it was time to put my Las Vegas and retail expertise to use once again and to offer up some unique, serious and of course comic perspectives on how to rock the upcoming Shoptalk conference.
Here are my 10 tips:
Don't miss out on Sunday
I know it's the dregs to have to work on a Sunday, but Shoptalk is worth the early departure.
Sunday starts with a bang. It is a choose your own adventure of options — with panels on everything from Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania professors discussing U.S. retail trends to European companies explaining e-commerce disruptions occurring across the Atlantic. Right off the bat, if you like these types of things, you can feel like Neo reading all the green numbers in the Matrix.
It will be hard for this year's Sunday to recapture the glory of Lionel Richie's 2017 pure gold opening line: "Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone." But credit Shoptalk for planning to get out of the starting blocks, for the sake of industry-wide education, as quickly as possible.
Study the agenda and go where your heart lies
As I type this, I am vigorously researching and planning out my own agenda. It can be pretty overwhelming. Don't let it overwhelm you. Sit down with pen in hand and ask yourself, like the princess said to Sebastian in "The NeverEnding Story" — what does your heart tell you?
It won't be easy. I'm already conflicted.
For example, on day two do I attend a session on voice-activated commerce, or should I attend a session with Mary Beth Laughton of Sephora (who I respect immensely) on delighting customers through personal interactions? Likely, my business partner and I will have to tag team this segment of the show, and we wouldn't have known that had we not planned everything out together beforehand.
In case you are wondering, I will probably choose Mary Beth because her work is far closer than voice is right now in transforming physical retail.
Know your priorities
My priorities for the show are the same as they were at NRF — the evolution of omnichannel retailing. From a technology perspective, I want to hear how companies are thinking about the implementation of the holy grail trifecta of data capture:
- Mobile (including voice) applications
- Location analytics
- Cloud commerce
While Shoptalk is digitally-led, it isn't digitally-led for science sake. What I love about Shoptalk is that it puts an emphasis on digital to unlock the future art of retailing. The agenda is packed with companies exploring the artistic expression of retail both in the physical and in the digital worlds — tried and true companies, like Sephora, alongside new upstarts like Perch Interactive, M. Gemi and Rockets of Awesome.
Studying how the wonderful ideas of these innovative companies fuse over time and get supercharged with the technologies mentioned is my personal version of green zeroes and ones from the Matrix.
Stay at the Venetian
If you have the cash or your company is fitting the bill, make sure you stay at The Venetian or the The Palazzo. Getting around Las Vegas is not easy. All the casinos are mammoths. They may seem close to each other on a map, but they are all long walks, and travel by way taxi can take a long time too.
So stay close to the conference. The rooms at these hotels are nice and spacious, you can quickly run up for a deodorant change and a phone recharge at any point during the day, and most importantly, once you decide to leave your late-night heater at the tables, your room is only a short, buzzed elevator ride away.
I, however, failed to follow this advice and instead wound up next door at Harrah's — the McDonald's of casinos.
Beware the CEO Press Tour
Shoptalk is now the belle of the ball. If you read the tea leaves, don't be surprised if large companies even try to time the event with press releases about their "innovative" new services or tech.
Watch out for this! Don't be fooled!
Chances are much of what the CEOs will say is scripted, rehearsed and can be read with as much efficacy in press releases before and after the event. You may be better off spending your time at an awesome networking opportunity, at a vendor meeting or out shopping the local market (The RealReal's pop-up store will be open, for example).
Don't miss the Amazon keynote on Tuesday
Unlike the garden variety keynotes from the C-suite, Amazon keynotes are not to be missed — Amazon rarely makes public appearances, so when they do, it is important to attend. Get a seat early for Eric Broussard, vice president of International marketplaces and retail, and Gianna Puerini, vice president of Amazon Go.
Last year I got my eye-opening glimpse into the pyramid-like nature of Amazon's business planning when Amazon Vice President Stephenie Landry spoke about Prime Now. "Find something customers love first, and you can figure out how to make a business out of it later," she said.
Or, as I like to translate it, "Ask the American public and stock market to subsidize your efforts unfairly for years until your competition has no means to keep pace."
I don't know what gems Eric and Gianna will throw down this year, but I sure as hell will be interested to see if we can get a better glimpse of Amazon's plans for world domination.
Rumor has it too, before her speech, Gianna will lead the crowd in the pledge of allegiance to the United States of Amazon ... one nation under Bezos ... while Eric stands at attention with his hand over his heart.
Scout your networking meet up spots
Meeting people inside a casino can be tricky. These are my personal favorite spots: Grand Lux Cafe, Espressamente Illy and Bouchon at The Venetian.
The Grand Lux Cafe is the Perkins/Denny's of the Las Vegas scene. Its 24-hour dining is perfect for any early morning network meet up or late-night egg-laden recharge. It is strategically located near many main thoroughfares but go early — it can get busy.
Espressamente Illy is another nice spot for the Starbucks-like hookup. It has nice Italian coffee and if you really want to throw caution to the wind on what is sure to be your Las Vegas gluttony and debauchery, you can also indulge in some, how do the Italians say it — Gelato?
Of course, if you need to class it up a bit, you cannot go wrong with Bouchon for dinner or lunch either. Bouchon, by Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame, is understated and smart, with a little something for everyone. I recommend their absinthe too.
Don't over network
The huge mistake I made last year was that I scheduled far too many networking meetings. It is great to have so many fascinating people all in one place, but with social media today, networking is so much easier than it ever was before.
The conference organizers do a fabulous job building a jammed pack agenda filled with the industry's best and the brightest, while still leaving time for networking over lunch and in the evenings. Industry trade shows, especially amid this time of radical transformation, need to be about learning above everything else.
The show should be about shifting one's context and listening with a willingness to alter one's point of view. Networking will happen organically either at or away from the show, as you come to better grips with what it is you want to learn in the first place, after listening to the great speakers.
Stay through Wednesday
The other mistake I have seen people make in the past is that they leave the show too early. In the past, Wednesday has been my favorite day of the show because often the speakers are a little bit off the beaten path from traditional retail.
In 2016, I remember having my mind blown by the CEO of Postmates. I thought the industry was changing fast, but then I sat and listened to him talk about his company, which primarily was focused on restaurant delivery, and soon I realized the pace of change was going to happen even faster and from more angles than I had ever thought before. Same thing happened in 2017, as I sat and listened to Nick Green of Thrive Market talk about how he was forever changing the natural and organic food retail landscape.
This year I expect more of the same. Boxed, the company turning down acquisition offers left and right, is on the agenda, as are other exciting breakout sessions on AI, transportation and organizational transformation theory.
Plus, Wednesday is just more relaxed too. People are a little less tight after three to four days in Las Vegas, the high-pressure dinners and meet ups are over, and your mind can just be free to wander and explore for one last morning before heading back to the grind of the office.
Don't fly into or out of LaGaurdia
I have said it once, and I will say it again — do not travel through LaGaurdia airport at all costs! I don't care what trade show it is — NRF, Shoptalk, whatever — it just isn't worth it.
The Pope could be holding a convention on mitre picking in the taxi line of Terminal C and I still wouldn't fly into or out of the god forsaken airport that is LaGuardia.