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Top Takeaways From the 2019 World Retail Congress

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After three days with the global leaders there were signs of inspiration, but questions remain

James Bidwell, Chair of Springwise, Co-founder of the innovation consultancy Re_Set and author of Disrupt! 100 Lessons in Business Innovation, shares his thoughts on this year’s World Retail Congress in Amsterdam. 

The 2019 World Retail Congress in Amsterdam demonstrated that the world of retail continues to face an existential crisis on many levels. The difference between the massive challenges faced by the legacy industry players and the opportunity being captured by the newer, more innovative businesses of the future has never been so acute. 

At the event itself — held in a large, air-conditioned exhibition area at the edge of the Amsterdam centre — there were plenty of reminders of the old way. With its non-recyclable badges and sponsors handing out a seemingly endless supply of single-use plastic water bottles (with “the future of retail” emblazoned on them — ironic, I thought…), it seemed as if the environmental issues we’re all facing were not even on the radar. Juxtaposed with the modern, well-connected host city — where the primary mode of transport are eco-friendly bikes — the scene was set for a fascinating three days.

Never has there been more change in an industry that is both serving and employing hundreds of millions of people, an industry that has so much impact on our natural resources. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, it is clear that there will be winners and losers, but the real question is whether retail has the capacity to do the right thing for our planet and become a genuine force for good.

After three days with the global leaders there were signs of inspiration, but questions remain as to whether they will turn things around in time.

Top Takeaways From WRC

Martin Wolf on economic and political backdrop: This was expertly outlined by Wolf, an associate editor and chief economics commentator for the Financial Times, who explored the macro challenges faced by all of us in an increasingly fragile world. He made clear in his comments that the strategic rivalry between the US and China is not to be underestimated— not just in business, but in technology and military firepower. His predictions, which have very often been spot on, left the audience feeling apprehensive. 

Eastern influence: WRC does a brilliant job of attracting Chinese retailers and this year, both Tencent and JD.com were on stage. The speed, flexibility and agility of these new organisations in new markets is astounding, and there is much to learn here. The rise of the ecosystem player with a holistic customer approach and powered by technology is driving huge growth. WeChat processes one billion payments every single day. That’s right: one billion, every day.

Netherlands in good hands: Prime Minister Mark Rutte dropped by for half an hour and gave an excellent talk. Dynamic, personal and knowledgeable, he outlined his government’s commitment to innovation, sustainability and digital as the platform for growth. Unencumbered by the political turmoil, which is destroying the US and UK political class, this was an example of the leadership that is making the Netherlands such an attractive place to do business and to live.

Carla Buzasi on Gen X: The charismatic managing director of WGSN, and a Springwise favourite, gave an engaging talk on Generation X, or the “lost generation.” She argued that this generation represents a compelling and overlooked opportunity for retailers, who continue to maintain their obsession with millennials and the ageing population

Profit with a purpose: Guy Singh Watson, the founder of Riverford Organic, gave the talk of the conference. His organic vegetables box-delivery scheme perfectly captures the zeitgeist with its uncompromising environmental and sustainability messaging. “Is your organisation useful?” he asked. Is it contributing to the good of our world, our planet, or is it a destructive force? A proponent of employee ownership, protection of the soil and our natural world, Watson argued that climate change trumps all other issues we face, and that retailers must change their ways and set the example. The audience was stunned into temporary silence and then rose to an ovation, though many in attendance were likely left examining their consciences as they boarded their jets home.