RBTE and Essential Retail parent company Legend Exhibitions has this week announced the launch of the Buying & Merchandising Summit.

Set to take place in London on 22 September, the event has already confirmed speakers from the likes of Adidas, Net-a-Porter and Thomas Pink, and it is promising to deliver a programme that will inspire and educate retailers as they manage their buying, merchandising and assortment planning projects in an increasingly complex marketplace.

This publication caught up with the chairperson for the event, RSR Research's Brian Kilcourse, to find out what to expect.

Why hold the Buying & Merchandising Summit (B&MS)?

To outsiders, retail seems like a straightforward business; we plan, buy merchandise, sell it, and monitor the results for the next go-round. In the past generation, retailers perfected a push model, standardising assortments, optimising how we purchased it to get the best cost-of-goods, and allocating (or pushing) inventory to the stores based on sales forecasts. But that model assumed that consumers started and ended their paths-to-purchase in the physical store. Consumers' choices were limited to what retailers wanted to sell them.  

All of that changed however, with the massive adoption of smart web-enabled mobile devices around the 2007-2010 timeframe. Now consumers could – and did – explore choices outside the four walls of the store, on their smartphones. For the first time ever, consumers now carried 'the store' around with them in their pockets and purses. And so the rules changed: it was no longer about what a retailer wanted to sell, but what a consumer wanted to buy. Consumers want relevance – they don't want to have to slog through acres of products they don't want in order to find what they are looking for. They are time-starved and information-rich. The fact that consumers begin their paths-to-purchase outside of the physical store, and now have many more choices to explore, has dramatically changed how retailers have to plan, buy and sell merchandise. And that is why the B&MS meeting is so timely – because as industry professionals, we need to explore how to address the changes to the business that we are challenged by, and learn how to turn those challenges into opportunities.

At RSR Research you have recently researched merchandising and assortment so what were the big issues from that?

RSR published its annual benchmark on the state of merchandising in March, and we learned several important things. For example:

  1. In the past few years, RSR had seen a significant surge in concern over underperforming inventory, no doubt driven by continued unstable economic conditions. This year, however, inventory concerns fall behind issues of pleasing the consumer: namely, understanding consumer preferences, innovating quickly, and retailers' self-awareness that their reliance on promotions is ultimately eroding their brands. 
  2. Retailers continue to use price as their primary merchandising lever, but the number looking to improve sell-through with both optimisation and localisation technologies continues to rise. 
  3. The departments which need to be in line most when it comes to merchandising – marketing, supply chain and stores – are working at cross purposes. Retailers are aware of this, and yet so far have been unable to remedy the situation. 
  4. Retailers are hyper-aware that many of the legacy technologies they've been using for years are in dire need of a refresh. 

As a very experienced retail conference attendee what is your view on what most delegates want from such an event?

Conference attendees usually look for two things: first, they seek to benchmark their company's position against peers in the industry, and secondly, they are looking for 'take-home' ideas that can help them further their businesses. Although (as I said earlier) retail seems simple, the devil is in the detail. Retailers learn from each other, and so they seek a safe harbour where they can exchange ideas about challenges that are affecting all of us. The industry is at a one-of-a-kind reset moment and we're all in the same boat. So we'll sink or swim together.

In light of the challenges of omnichannel retailing, how should retailers change and will they have to be investing in new solutions to cope?

Fundamentally, retailers have to understand that consumers don't see channels. They see solutions – the retailer either solves the consumer's lifestyle challenge, or not. The term "channels" is an organisational concept that is lost on today's busy shoppers. What consumers want are solutions to their lifestyle needs – so it's all about delivering relevant value, when, where, and how consumers want it. So retailers have to move from a focus on product, to what RSR calls "the five Cs". With the consumer as the centre (or the organising principle), retailers need to understand the consumer's context (what lifestyle problem are they trying to solve?); present the appropriate content to the consumer at the right moment, in the right way, in order to help the consumer make the best decision; plug the consumer into a community of like-minded shoppers to get opinions and recommendations; and finally, to engage in commerce, delivering the solution to the consumer in the way that he or she chooses. It's a very different retail model from the days of "stack 'em high and watch 'em fly!"  

Tell us about RSR Research...

RSR is a US-based research firm that focuses on the business challenges and opportunities facing the retail industry around the world. We were founded in 2007 to quickly become the leading source of insights for trends in retail technology, and retail in general. We are a small company of retail industry insiders (with well over 75 years of industry experience between the four partners), but our mission is big – to elevate the conversation about retail technology to a strategic level within the retail enterprise. We offer objective insights into the business challenges and opportunities that retailers are addressing in today's marketplace, and how winners win, as well as pragmatic advice to both retailers and solution providers. We draw from a deep bed of research into retailers' technology investment plans and the business opportunities and challenges that drive those investments. Our research reports are always free and we promise to keep survey respondents' individual responses confidential – always. Sign on to RSR Research and try it for yourself!

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Buying & Merchandising Summit 2015