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

Shoptalk 2024 Musings

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There was a piece in my local paper about a mysterious lingering cough that’s going ‘round. According to the article, there’s a dearth of data about this particular problem, but doctors speculate along two lines; one, that after having been locked down for a few years, our immune systems are more vulnerable to viruses that are spread from person to person. Secondly (according to the article), “it could be that people are simply more aware and sensitive to … any kind of respiratory … even if they barely gave the same symptom a second thought before the pandemic.”

What does that have to do with Shoptalk ’24 in Las Vegas last week? Only this: people – including me – are only now really getting back into the swing of things when it comes to big gatherings like Shoptalk, perhaps because of a lingering concern catching some dread disease. Or maybe it’s that we’ve all learned that a lot of ground can be covered via the tele-conferencing platform of our choice. But I suspect that what’s really drawing attendees back to big events is the need to plug into the community that we are all a part of, and that’s more important than any concern about catching a cold from the guy we’re sitting next to on the plane.

But what about the rest of it? There’s a lot of buzz around Shoptalk, and it does offer some real improvements over other big shows. For one thing, the army of attendees gets fed, in contrast to the NRF January event at Manhattan’s Javits Center, where attendees have to bulk up at one of the many Starbucks in NYC before stepping foot into that food desert. Frederick the Great famously said that “an army marches on its stomach”. It’s the same for conference attendees.

Another big plus for Shoptalk is the speed dating concept, where retailers and solutions vendors have an opportunity to sit down for a few minutes and exchange contact info. Mind you, beyond associating a face with a name it’s hard to achieve anything in 15 minutes, especially with a “Voice of God” regularly interrupting the conversation with high-decibel warnings like “the current session will end in 5 minutes… the current session will end in 2 minutes…etc.” The analogy that came to mind for me was that this was like trying to have a private conversation while Pete Townsend of The Who is blasting away in my ear.

What about the content? Well, it was good – everyone wants to know what the competition is up to, and conference sessions, even when scrubbed clean of any deep insights that might give away competitive secrets, are good for that. This year, it was all about “AI… AI … AI”. My partner Steve Rowen and I joked that the only thing not AI-enabled at the NRF Big Show event was the men’s bathroom – and Shoptalk ’24 was just the same. Don’t get me wrong, AI is revolutionary, and there are lots of possibilities created by the insights that it can derive from all kinds of new data. It’s good, it’s important, and “Retail Winners” (RSR’s term for over-performers) are using it now. So, the message at Shoptalk was that any retailer that is not taking advantage of the technology needs to get onboard. Another message (from the technology community) is that AI isn’t just for the big-and-rich companies that can afford data scientists– the science is being brought down to street level so that small and mid-sized retailers can use it too.

What about the Expo? That’s a push (to use a Vegas term). I cannot remember a time when I last saw something on an Expo floor that I didn’t know at least something about. Technology vendors spend an incredible amount of time and money getting their expo booths and demonstration scripts just right, but any observer can see that attendees tend to breeze in and out of those booths very casually. We advise our technology clients to calendarize meetings as much as possible for the Expo, so that meaningful exchanges can occur. Nonetheless, the cost-per-lead is very high.

Every one of the RSR team used to work at a company that ran big expositions, and so we know what the impetus is for Shoptalk (which originally highlighted the sessions and only offered a minimalistic expo) to feature a big expo floor – the profit margin from Expos is really addictive! But expos should be easier to consume. One thing I’ve seen at user conferences is that booths can be organized into subject-specific “villages” (the ESRI User Conference does a particularly good job of this). While the tech companies vie for the “best” space on the show floor, perhaps they should be lobbying the organizers to make it easier for attendees to consume all the related information being shared instead. If Demand Forecasting & Planning is my thing, I’d like to maximize my time to learn as much as I can about what the competing technologies can do, instead of traipsing back and forth across a big expo floor to find the next meeting.

What about the venue itself? The Mandalay Bay is virtually the same as every other casino/conference facility in town – the actual event is at the far end of a huge facility, and if you’re counting steps on your Apple Watch, you know you’re getting a real workout.

I understand why Las Vegas and Orlando are used so often for these big events, but if I never see either town again it will be too soon. Wouldn’t it be great to see a big conference in San Diego, Nashville, or some other “new” city? Vegas is particularly obnoxious because the city is devoted to things that aren’t all that good for humans – gambling, drinking, and carousing. I’m not moralizing here – but a conference is supposed to be about business, not pleasure. Vegas is big and expensive – the food is so-so, and its full of people that really should go home.

So, what’s the bottom line? Will I continue to go to these big conferences? The answer to that is an unambiguous “yes”. But the reason is not because of the quality of the content or to discover new things or to enjoy the town. It’s because that’s where I meet up with old colleagues and friends and make some new ones, so that we can compare notes and perhaps learn some things to take back to the office and use.

I think that’s really why we all congregate like we do. Conference organizers know that that is a big need, and they’ve figured out how to make a lot of money by creating the circumstances that will drive traffic. Building a sense of “community” is what determines the success of these events, and until we find another vehicle to meet up with ether other, expo events will do. But event organizers shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that “their” event is the best – it’s just one big water cooler we gather around.

Newsletter Articles March 28, 2024
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