The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

Lookout! It’s Our 13th Annual Merchandising Study: What’s Changed?


Hard to believe, but Paula and I recently sat down to look at the data for our – wait for it – 13th annual Merchandising Study. Yes, that’s correct, as she and I started conducting this report together before RSR was even a company! Think about everything that has happened to our industry in that time frame: 3 presidential administrations, the complete reconstruction of our social fabric due to incessant use of mobile devices, and the ascendency of Amazon – 13 years ago they were a notable competitor in the online books and music market. Today you probably buy your groceries from them, (if not a majority of the items in your home and office), and they collect 4 out of every 10 retail dollars spent online.

But – and this is a big but – how much has the merchandising game really changed in that time? We hope, as we do every year, that the answer is “a lot.” And when we look back at our earliest reports we see some differences, indeed. For starters, in 2006, the merchant prince was still very much a thing in retail. So much so that our respondents told us for several years thereafter that merchandising would forever be a blend of art and science.

Today – that sentiment is all but dead.

Only 12% strongly agree that the loss of the merchant prince has cost them from a creativity standpoint, and when we asked what retailers thought could help them overcome their existing challenges, only 9% - the lowest response pool by far – said “Bring back the merchant prince!”

Consider the following excerpt from Paula’s initial reactions to the data:

Upon Mickey Drexler’s retirement from J. Crew, even as he was acknowledged as a merchant prince… many said that the merchant prince was an anachronism dating from a pre-technology world.

Mr. Drexler himself… confessed that he didn’t realize just how much technology would change the retail landscape. He claimed he ‘didn’t understand how speed and price would drive internet shoppers.’

Certainly the sense that the arbiter of taste (i.e. merchant prince) is now the consumer rather than a style picker from above appears to have a ring of truth.

So what we are left with is an ocean of retailers who believe the key to a successful product mix in the future is technology – not people – and that seems rather new. Truth be told, it’s a trend that’s been years in the making, but this year’s numbers really drive home just how complete the transition from “art” to “science” has become.

But there’s another problem in this, and it’s something we’ve been noticing quite frequently lately in benchmark reports on several other topics: retailers say they trust explicitly in the technologies that will help them become relevant again. But they don’t necessarily know which ones. Or how they will best use them. This does not seem ideal.

We can’t wait to see what a complete analysis of this years’ data reveals about merchandising technologies, and how (or if) retailers are going to be able to leverage them to their full potential. The report will release at the end of this month, and we’ll make certain to let you know once it’s available.


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Articles & Opinions March 13, 2018
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