There’s been a significant shift in mindset about consumer roles: Buyers demand, retailers adapt. And North America’s top retail leaders are saying that the buying landscape is no longer simply about making a sale, but also getting buyers to care about their products or brand. “People need a reason to shop,” according to Nick Annacone, KITH’s Chief Operating Officer.
Retail leaders in commerce and culture gathered at Commerce+, hosted by Shopify Plus in New York City, to talk about challenges they face in their field, what’s top of mind when it comes to their consumers, and what’s on the horizon. Here’s a look at what these retail leaders from companies like Allbirds and Mejuri care about: sustainability, brand experience, and the new luxury experience.
Increasingly, retailers must think about striking a balance between providing a quality product to a large sum of people while thoughtfully contributing to a more sustainable future.
Jad Finck, VP of Innovation and Sustainability at Allbirds, said the footwear industry dumps 700 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. Allbirds’ solution to help curb this problem was to build something from the ground up that wasn’t simply a sustainability-focused capsule collection, but a cornerstone of the brand.
Finck’s view of sustainable brands is, “If you’re not helping people change the way they make [products], you’re not making a difference or being a sustainability leader.” Sustainability is baked into the brand’s pillars, along with comfort and design. Allbirds sneaker is made up of natural ingredients and fibers like eucalyptus, wool, and recycled plastics for the laces. They’ve even created a sweet foam for the sole made out of sugar cane rather than an oil-based synthetic.
Finck walked through what sustainability looks like in other industries with Mara Hoffman’s VP of Sustainability, Product, and Business Strategy, Dana Davis, and Ford X’s VP, Sunny Madra. Sustainability, even now, is viewed as a sort of risk. Both companies approach that risk-taking differently. Mara Hoffman, a private fashion brand, is more nimble with its approach; Davis said she’d ask Mara Hoffman herself about new ideas. For Ford X, it’s a top-down approach, according to Madra. “If leadership believes in it, it enables teams to do it. Find the balance, respect brand, and push the envelope.”
On the fashion side of running a sustainable business, Davis had a few suggestions:
Fashion is a human business. Encourage people to remember how to take care of clothes, and offer services to maintain longevity to move past the continuous buying cycle.
- Fashion is an enormous source of pollution. Think about waste and design. Use digital prints based on each pattern piece, said Davis, but also, “Make the print the size of the piece, so [there’s] no fabric waste.” It seems like a more expensive choice but it isn’t. It modernizes their design technique and creates less waste in the process.
When it comes to sustainable practices in the car industry, sustainable solutions center around how and where people live. Urbanization remains steady, and people don’t drive in cities. Paraphrasing Ford’s Executive Chairman Bill Ford, Madra said that the world is at peak car. The world is oversaturated with cars so think about how people are moving in different ways, like electric bikes or scooters. “Electrification changes a lot of things. Van life is having a moment: a commercial business can run out of a van that’s electrified, creating a better customer experience, autonomy, and sustainability.”
To all of these points, these leaders agreed that it’s important to weave sustainability into the brand’s story in a way that’s easily digestible for consumers.
Annacone said he’d rather have no experience with a brand in-store than a shitty one. The truth in that sentiment is heavy: Brands need to understand that consumers want to be part of something, feel an emotion, and participate in a retail story in a way like none other before. “Customers are smart. They see when something has genuine meaning and synergy,” Annacone said.
Which means a brand’s hype has to be genuine for a consumer to care about it. Hype has evolved over time. As ambiguous as it is to define and to measure, hype is used by brands to gauge consumer investment in a product or experience.
Social media plays an enormous role in both determining hype and helping drive brand experience—with metrics—for companies. Gymshark’s Noel Mack, Chief Brand Officer, adamantly championed the brand’s presence on Gen Z’s favorite app, TiK Tok. Mack said explicitly that brands have to evolve or die. Of one of their competitors, Nike, Mack said that their TiK ToK audience is around 150,000, while GymShark has more than one million. What is posted to GymShark’s TiK ToK won’t be the same as what’s on its Instagram stories or even on Twitter. Mack says it’s important to have a different voice for each social channel while still maintaining the overall tone of the brand. Consumers are savvy enough to seek out information everywhere and homogeneity will bore them, not engage them.
Nate Brown from Studio Institute, creative director for cultural figures like Beyoncé, Kanye West, and Jay-Z said, “Experiential is an interesting word because the definition is ambiguous. Experiential can happen along any journey you have with a brand. It’s not just a pop-up shop.” He continued, “It doesn’t have to be a big [New York City] Wooster Street pop up. That can run a brand dry. Experiential is the customer’s experience with the brand.”
Mack admitted it’s tough to stay agile and on top of what new customers will want tomorrow. While GymShark was born out of a group of friends in the gym who didn’t fit the stereotype of gym rats, they built a community around young people who fit into underground worlds. Mack says they have to work hard to maintain relevance now, as they get older, and become further removed from those esoteric feelings.
Luxury has often felt out of reach for the majority of consumers. It felt too synonymous with wealth, and therefore an aspirational lifestyle, if one could ever achieve that.
But with numerous recent economic and cultural shifts, many consumers are now demanding a luxury they can afford. “The next generation of luxury consumers want great products, great customer experience, and sustainability,” said Jill Layfield, co-founder and CEO of shoe brand, Tamara Mellon. “We like to say that our products are exclusive but the brand is inclusive.” Ecommerce, Layfield continued, has become democratized.
Luxury means different things to these leaders in luxury. For the COO of Anine Bing, luxury is about quality. For the CEO and founder of Mejuri, it's about personal branding.
Mejuri is also concerned with the modern millennial woman who wants to treat herself. “Jewelry was traditionally an industry where men bought for women so we created a brand that women can buy for themselves. It’s all about re-thinking the positioning,” said Sakkija.
Mejuri incorporates the zeitgeist into their work, offering it as a means of personal branding. Their zodiac jewelry functions both as ornate, beautiful designs to wear, and a means of self-branding. Are you a Pisces, Sagittarius or Libra? Mejuri even has astrology-based events, some featuring astrologer Nadine Jane who also writes horoscopes for the brand. Identity and luxury are woven tightly together for Mejuri. But new luxury in a broader sense is about self-expression and considers values rather than segmenting by age or other demographics. While those demographics do matter, new luxury is concerned with sharing values and identity.
Layfield reflected on new luxury’s focus on ideas. “Traditional luxury brands build community through status whereas the next generation of luxury builds community through shared values.”
What we know—not just from these leaders in retail but from trends for the better part of this decade—is that consumer experience drives brand and retail. Consumers are demanding better quality products that are made in an eco-friendly way, while fostering experiences and investment in the brand, all without breaking the bank. Brands have to adapt quickly and precisely to keep engaging customers. Because of this, enterprise retailers don’t look or feel like traditional businesses. They are shaping the future of commerce around the belief that they have to earn consumer attention and money, and work every single day thereafter to keep it.
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