Talking Shop: The four big themes of Shoptalk 2024

See what trends are top of mind for leading retailers and brands at Shoptalk 2024, including AI and building an excellent customer experience.

By Steve Feyer on March 19, 2024

The four big themes at Shoptalk 2024

Shoptalk 2024 is in full swing in fabulous Las Vegas. At this annual confab for retailers, leaders are always tuned in to what’s coming next, both to disrupt their businesses and to create new opportunities.

This year’s conference is built around four big themes, and nearly every keynote, session, table talk, and exhibitor is playing in at least one of these important areas:

  1. AI, especially generative AI
  2. Unified retail experiences and seamless customer journeys
  3. Changing role of the brand and building winning brands of the future
  4. Navigating changing industry relationships

Understanding these trends will give any retailer the right lens to plan for 2024 and beyond. Here’s how I have seen them playing out during the first two days of Shoptalk.

Artificial Intelligence

By now AI is familiar news, yet it continues to be top-of-mind with the often astonishing achievements of generative AI. Many technology companies at Shoptalk are announcing their new AI strategies and add-ons. Established AI companies have increased their presence, and some have used this big occasion to announce new products. Last week, for example, Session AI announced our AI Incentive Optimization solution.

Experts have provided specific examples of novel ways to use AI. Strategy consultant and professor Dan Kraemer showed how his team used sequences of GPTs to develop and test transformation strategies for a big box retailer, enabling them to deliver meaningful results in a fraction of the time.

I found this project interesting, a fast-strategy counterpart to fast fashion now enabled with AI. Just as fast fashion compressed months of design and delivery to put new fashions on shelves in weeks, fast strategy with generative AI is compressing high-level work from months into weeks. However the comparison also extends into the possible disadvantages of speed. Fast fashion mimics high fashion, and just so, generative AI can only reflect human thought that has already been created.

Retail leaders and technology providers shared many results that they’ve achieved to date with AI, already using new generative tools to reduce costs and delivery times meaningfully. Personalization techniques using AI also continue to be popular topics, with valuable outcomes, Yet these tools don’t meet every need retailers have: generative AI is appropriate for producing content, and personalization for converting known traffic, but what is possible for other needs?

Session AI CEO Debjani Deb pointed out onstage that behavioral AI is available as well with in-session marketing. “Brands spend a lot to get customers to the site, then to retarget them—and brands lack levers to convert visitors on the site,” she noted. “That’s what AI is disrupting today. We talk a lot about generative AI—this is behavioral AI to convert visitors without any privacy identifiers.”

Unified Retail Experiences

The need for unified retail experience is a new way of thinking about a well-known problem for brands. Both at Shoptalk and earlier, retail leaders have told me that they consider “omnichannel” to be an old trend, outdated even. “URE” is the new concept.

The shift makes sense to me based on what the language suggests as the core of the strategy. Omnichannel takes the retailer’s point of view, and looks at the channels and distribution methods first. Unified retail experience begins from the customer’s point of view, looking back at the brand to see the same brand experience from any point of purchase. This change in mindset is especially important because brands must accommodate a proliferation of channels.

Vikalp Tandon, Managing Director, Global Commerce Lead, Accenture, noted that retailers had at most five sales channels in the 1990s. By 2020 retailers had at least 20 channels, a number that continues to accelerate. He spoke about the need for common digital infrastructure that supports the diverse needs of these channels, so that customers can have a unified experience.

I saw technology providers opening up these channels, and offering ways to unify them. With technology retailers can sell through web banners, media, and social platforms. They have more partners and marketplaces than ever to sell through. And across all of these channels, there are ways to retain customer preferences, engage loyalty programs, offer personalization, and otherwise provide a unified experience no matter where customers buy.

Changing Roles of Brands

The concept of brands staying relevant is not new. Great brand leaders, in my experience, are continuously paranoid about the brands in their charge. The change that Shoptalk attendees have in mind goes beyond straightforward concepts such as brand awareness and NPS, because today’s brands want to play meaningful roles in their customers’ lives.

This change, and the imperative for brands that hope to win in the future, is almost universally described as converting Gen Z and the following Gen Alpha into loyal customers. To this end, many speakers describe their research, their experiences, their successes, their failures, and their ongoing strategies for capturing buyers roughly age 27 and younger. The Shoptalk crowd is obsessed with Gen Z.

(Privately, I’ve had marketers tell me their target audiences are Millennials and even older demographics, but this reality for many successful brands does not match the zeitgeist of Shoptalk 2024.)

So how are brands engaging these new consumers? Concepts I heard have included: authentic ambassadorships, faster marketing execution, digital-first commerce (recognizing these consumers were born into digital life), IRL-first experiences (recognizing the covid interruption loomed large in these consumers’ young lives), embracing social mission, embracing weird and cringe, gender-free communication, and sincere collaboration with consumers in order to build-with rather than build-for their audiences.

Each of these concepts could be a conference all on its own, and all of them have at minimum a strong connection to social media. So it’s no accident that Shoptalk announced a relevant new event during the opening keynote. The New Market will initiate at Shoptalk 2025, “bringing a fresh perspective to the attention industry, convening a community from across the ecosystem: media buyers; technology solutions; retail media networks; agencies; and next-generation publishers, including gaming, immersive worlds and more.” In other words The New Market will help retailers to understand their changing roles – as well as the bleeding-edge channels where they will seek to extend their unified retail experiences.

Navigating a Changing Industry

The last big topic is in no way the least important. Industry relationships are continually changing as technology advances and as important companies rise and fade. Even with the reality of constant change, an especially important series of pivots seems to be in motion.

Begin with the power of social media platforms. Many brands rely on social media to drive traffic, but these relationships can be testy. I see multiple vendors in the expo hall promising to help retailers advertise on social media while working around the limitations (real or perceived) of social media algorithms. Yet at the same time, the large TikTok booth is mobbed all day with interest – and no other large platforms are exhibiting this year.

Retailers also must contend with changing relationships with important commercial partners, such as advertising networks and payment providers. These partners are also pursuing new revenue streams, powered by new technologies. In other words, retailers seeking to provide unified retail experiences across many channels find that their partners face the same imperatives. The result is that partners can also start to feel like competitors at times. This dynamic of “coopetition” has long been familiar to us in the technology world, and I see it dawning in retail.

Perhaps above all, retailers are grappling with the market environment they now face. The pandemic pulled ecommerce growth ahead, and now marketwide growth is slow. Inflation made many consumers more price-sensitive. Consumers still crave in-person shopping, but also seek both the convenience and thoughtfulness of well-curated local destinations. Reflecting all of these realities, consumers will still pay premium prices for quality experiences from brands they trust.

How will retailers thrive in this changed industry? Perhaps they will use generative AI to test new strategies. Perhaps they will increasingly listen to their next generation of consumers. Perhaps they will invest further in purchasing experiences that feel the same in any digital or physical environment. And to make any of these changes a reality, they will need the right technology.

If you want to learn more about how in-session marketing is keeping retailers on the path to success, talk shop with us at Session AI.

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