In the past, shopping almost always involved loading up the car, heading to the store and scouring racks and shelves for hours.
Today's shopping experience, however, often looks quite different. Many consumers do research online and know exactly what they want before ever setting foot in a store. Others forgo brick-and-mortar locations altogether, preferring to make their purchase with the click of a mouse instead.
The changing face of retail – and the growing convergence of the digital and physical shopping experience – was among the major topics of discussion at the University of Arizona's 18th annual Global Retailing Conference, held Thursday and Friday at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort in Tucson.
Presenters included Terry J. Lundgren, president and CEO of Macy's and a UA alumnus; Bobbi Brown, founder of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics; and other industry professionals who spoke on a variety of topics including brand management, customer service and relationship building, appealing to the millennial consumer, and integrating technology into the shopping experience.
The event, themed "Igniting the Customer Experience," was hosted by the UA's Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing, part of the John and Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
The annual conference aims to bring together industry and academic professionals in retail to network and exchange ideas. About 300 people from across the nation and the world, as well as a number of UA students studying business or retailing and consumer sciences, attended.
"Many people do not understand how different retail is from the old staid images of retail, and one of the things we are committed to at the University of Arizona is the recognition of the importance of the business of retail, and the reconceptualization of that business in ways that are always forward-looking and revolutionary," said UA President Ann Weaver Hart, who offered welcoming remarks at the event.
Hart applauded the UA's Center for Retailing for preparing students to work in the evolving industry by engaging them in hands-on opportunities, like industry internships, before they graduate.
"Our center aims to equip our students to make a positive difference in the retail industry in the world, to produce some of the best talent in the industry," she said.
Hart's comments were followed by a presentation by Lundgren, who graduated from the UA in 1974 and lent his name to the UA retailing center in 2004.
Lundgren noted that Macy's has seen significant change in the last seven or eight years, particularly with the integration of new technologies.
He stressed the importance of reaching young consumers – whose smart phones are their "shopping buddies" – through social media, direct messaging and the use of digital tools like kiosks and tablets in stores.
"We all have to change. We all have to be thinking about what's new and what's different because we have to respond very quickly to change in the way the consumer is shopping in our industry for us all to succeed," he said.
Brown, who gave the conference's closing presentation, also noted the importance of being flexible as a retailer.
"The retail experience changes, and what makes the most sense to me is to be open to change and go with the times," she said.
Brown recounted her journey from freelance makeup artist to chief creative of a major cosmetic company with a presence in 66 countries.
A married mother of three, Brown stressed to the aspiring retailers in the room the importance of determination, doing what you love, maintaining work-life balance and knowing your priorities. (You can hear more of her comments in this video.)
Aubrey Pressman, a UA sophomore who is pre-majoring in retail and consumer sciences, said it was eye opening to hear from Brown and other professionals during the conference.
"It's pretty inspirational. We're just getting started learning about the business and this conference helps give us ideas about what route we might want to take," she said.
Martha Van Gelder, director of the UA's Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing, said the conference is a tremendous opportunity for students and the retail community.
"The Global Retailing Conference's legacy is to bring to Tucson retail's most influential thinkers, connecting our audience and the UA community to industry leaders and key insights into the enormous impact retail has on innovation, technology and as a driver of the global economy," she said.
"A key takeaway should be that the consumer is leading the evolution of the personalization of the customer experience from the empowerment of small businesses to breathing local relevance into a huge global brand to the effects of conscious capitalism resulting in the well-being and building of our communities. The opportunity for all UA students entering this field is boundless."
Next year's Global Retailing Conference will be held April 23-24 at the Westin la Paloma Resort and Spa in Tucson. More information will be available on the conference website.