Shoptalk 2024   //   March 19, 2024

At Shoptalk, major retailers like Macy’s and Walmart focus on the in-store experience

At national sleep retailer Mattress Firm, the vast majority of shoppers who make purchases in-store have already browsed online. George Hanson, the brand’s evp digital officer, said shoppers often do a fair amount of research before buying in the category but ultimately want to buy in person — the brand sees 90% of its purchases happen in one of its 2,400-plus stores.

“When they come into the store they’re trying to get as much help as possible,” Hanson said.

Hanson was one of dozens of brand executives speaking about in-store experiences at this year’s Shoptalk, an annual conference that brings about 10,000 retail professionals to Las Vegas. One main programming focus this year is “creating a unified experience” between in-store and digital. With about 85% of consumer spending still happening in person, brands like Walmart and Macy’s are sharing how they’re updating, creating and, in some cases, downsizing physical retail environments. 

Modern Retail spoke with Wayfair’s vp of proprietary brands and curated merchandizing Liza Lefkowski ahead of a panel on cross-channel sales. While a digital-first company, Wayfair has eight stores under its property brands Joss & Main, Birch Lane and Allmodern — and this spring, Wayfair will open its inaugural flagship store in Chicago. Coming in between 100,000 and 150,000 square feet, the store will have 19 departments spanning two floors.

CEO Nijah Shah has called the development of Wayfair’s store one of its biggest projects this year; the company reported $3.1 billion in 2023 and is coming off its third consecutive quarter of positive adjusted EBITDA in its quest for profitability.

Lefkowski told Modern Retail that a physical store has been a goal of Wayfair’s for nearly a decade, with its smaller stores serving as a testing ground.

Lefkowski said Wayfair feels ready to build out a physical footprint at this time because its solidified foundational systems like like a strong supplier network, a large assortment of products and a robust logistics network that can handle large-scale home deliveries in a few days.

“All of the inputs that make omnichannel successful, we’ve done,” she said. “The only piece of the puzzle we don’t have is the physical experience.”

But there’s also a physical challenge to navigate — like making sure the variety of styles and price points that appear on Wayfair’s website are reflected in the assortment.

Lefkowski also said the company is thinking carefully about how to train associates. Though online shoppers may give positive reviews of customer service, “the challenge is that you usually don’t interact with us [online] unless you have a problem. The store is a great way to bring that personality out in your experience with us.”

Ensuring that store associates are equipped to serve customers was a popular topic on Shoptalk panels, with retailers like Cos and Walmart discussing how they use artificial intelligence or other tools to cut down on menial tasks and improve operations.

Walmart’s evp and chief product officer Jon Alferness spoke about the company’s use of technology, like associates being able to use a handheld device to scan over a box that can tell them what’s inside, helping them know which to pull into the floor. Other improvements are less techie yet still critical from a customer experience level — like making aisles wider to help accommodate associates packing pick-up orders with large carts.

Alferness also touched on some of what’s to come with Walmart’s “Store of the Future” concept as it beings to remodel 650 stores across the U.S., including digital signage on shelves that can reflect pricing changes automatically. “The new stores, the refresh and roll out of those new stores, give us the ability to think through the associate experience from the ground up,” he said.

Creating new and modern customer experiences in-store is also a focus at Macy’s; CEO Tony Spring delivered a keynote address on Sunday afternoon talking about the brand’s current trajectory as it hears a $6.6 billion buyout offer and is closing 150 stores. Spring told the audience that the shuttering stores represent 25% of the brand’s square footage, yet they represent less than 10% of the sales. 

“We have too many locations that were built for a different era,” Spring said.

Still, he’s far from giving up on physical retail. Spring called himself “a merchant at heart” and said people want to experience shopping in person for milestones and “retail therapy” moments. Macy’s has already modernized some locations that are smaller footprints and more visually engaging, Spring said.

Other retail brands in the Macy’s Inc. operation — Bluemercury and Bloomingdale’s small-format store Bloomie’s — will see 30 and 15 new stores respectively this year.

“This isn’t about shrinking,” he said. “It’s about improving the store fleet.”