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The last thing on my mind when I got to Retail’s Big Show NRF 2018 was buying jeans, but that changed when James Curleigh, President Levi’s Brand, rode his bike up to the stage guided by Waze to the sound of Bob Dylan’s classic tune. When it comes to retail, the times, they certainly are a’changin’, but faster now than ever before.

Having invented the coolest piece of clothing in modern history, the company shaped world culture through the second half of the last century, but by the turn of the millennium, America’s most patriotic, most iconic, most successful brand had lost its way. Competition and the inability to keep up with changing trends caused sales to nosedive.  The company realized that new leadership and new ways of working were required to get back on track.

Lessons in physics and merchandising

To help the NRF audience better understand how change works, Mr Curleigh reminded us of Isaac Newton’s premier law of physics: every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force.

Without a doubt, the advent of technology and its impact on consumer behavior is THE most massive external force compelling retailers to reexamine the way they do business now and forever after. The lessons for retailers from this legendary leader are simple: protect the core, expand for more, be simple and sophisticated, leverage your icons, invest in innovation, and above all, be accessible.

“Levi’s Stadium is the most innovative stadium in the world,” said Mr Curleigh. “It’s where you wear your jeans, where we bring the world together for music and sports. It’s our cultural center.”

Levi’s Stadium is indeed a pioneer in innovation, using SAP technology to enhance the fan experience through fun, interactive displays in the Fan Energy Zone or browse for statistics about their favorite teams and athletes in the NFL Stats Zone, all using real-time data, powered by SAP HANA.

Technology for success in retail

Ivano Ortis, Vice President, Retail, Manufacturing and Financial Insights at IDC, says he has never seen such a huge degree of disruption in the industry. “The big challenge, the must do item for every retailer,” says Mr Ortis, “is to innovate their business models while achieving short-term omni channel objectives. That’s like running multiple organizations at the same time.”

Since consumers now own retail, it’s not just about providing touchpoints for customers. It’s about becoming a channel free environment, so companies must provide new interfaces for interaction such as chat bots for conversational commerce  or visual interfaces where customers can get product images along with recommendations for outfit accessories.

According to IDC, there are three key success factors for retailers. First and foremost, invest in innovation to enable digital commerce. Next, create an individualized experience for every customer, and finally, create marketplaces where the ecosystem of inventory and experiences comes together.

Retailers need new platforms that integrate ERP, backend services, and partners, and enable new B2B and B2C services leveraging customer experience, commerce and agile fulfillment capabilities. At the core, you need AI capabilities to guide all commercial decisions.

Searching for something? Let it find you

“When you’re in shopping mode,” says Mr Ortis, “you’re searching for something. In a contextual discovery experience, products find the customers even if they are not in shopping mode. This is why the future of retail is not about products, but about the brand. A passive experience can lead to purchases.”

Well, this type of retail intelligence certainly works. James Curleigh pointed out that part of Levi’s strategy was to keep one foot in its heritage and use the other to step forward with innovation. “We have to give people a reason to buy jeans,” he said. “Our vision is to be the most loved, most relevant lifestyle brand. Some people have left; we want them back. Others did not grow up with the brand, but they’re falling in love with it now.”

So now that I’m revved up with memories about my last Bruce Springsteen concert and have the latest edition of Rolling Stone in hand, excuse me while I pop out to look for some new jeans.

Follow me on Twitter @magyarj

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