Articulate September 2017

UF’s 28th Annual Retail Smarter Conference


Written By: Caroline Redmond

“The retail industry is constantly changing and is powered by innovation. The definition of what is ‘smart’ in retail is always changing…what was considered ‘smart’ last year is completely different from what it is this year or what it is going to be next year.”– Betsy Goodman

On June 8, in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, the 28th annual Retail Smarter Conference kicked off with an introduction from Betsy Goodman, the conference’s organizer and executive director of the University of Florida’s Miller Retail Center. The UF-run conference has existed for nearly 30 years and evolves every year to stay up to date with the ever-changing retail industry. The event focuses on teaching retailers and students how to retail “smarter” and operates under the principle that the meaning of the word “smart” is constantly changing — the ongoing definition is reflected in the varying speaker lineup and topics each year.

“The retail industry is constantly changing and is powered by innovation,” Goodman said. “The definition of what is ‘smart’ in retail is always changing…what was considered ‘smart’ last year is completely different from what it is this year or what it is going to be next year.”

The two-day conference featured several speakers from various aspects of the retail industry, from CEOs to student interns. The conference also held two breakout sessions to give attendees a more intimate learning experience that enabled conversation with the speakers and their peers. No two speaker sessions are the same, and this year, the topics ranged all the way from the retail perspective on the gig economy to the relationship between terrorism and retail. The speakers came from a wide variety of companies including large international corporations like Walgreens, regional powerhouses like Bealls and nonprofit retailers fighting for social good like Krochet Kids.

Jim Lewis is the founder and CEO of Enhanced Retail Solutions, a retail analytics and demand planning company based out of New York City. Lewis is a veteran of the Retail Smarter Conference; 2017 was his seventh year attending, and he said he looks forward to it every year.

Lewis was a student of the Miller Retail Center 30 years ago, and going to the conference is a way for him to give back to the center that was so instrumental in shaping his career. The content also keeps Lewis coming back every year, and he always leaves with an “aha moment,” he said.

This year, that moment came when he heard one of his competitors pitch an idea that Lewis himself usually pitches in a perspective he never thought of. This is not uncommon; the conference is collaborative and a unique way for retailers from across the industry spectrum and around the country to learn from one another. On top of collaborating with fellow industry professionals, Lewis also loves the student-centered aspect of the conference.

“My favorite part of this conference is meeting the students, for two reasons,” Lewis said. “The first is purely nostalgic because I did that 30 years ago, and the second reason is because there are so many young people here excited to move into the world, and they have a thirst for knowledge. I love to see that enthusiasm.”

At the end of the conference in 2016, Lewis suggested to Goodman that the conference could benefit from a panel of industry professionals in addition to the typical speaker format. Goodman agreed, and the suggestion turned into a panel that Lewis moderated this year about a “brick-and-mortar retail survival guide.”

All you have to do is turn on the news to see that the retail industry is perceived as dying, Lewis explained. Because of this, he wanted to host the panel to discuss how brick-and-mortar stores can survive this so-called apocalypse and to answer the question, “Are we in a retail revolution, or is it just evolution?”

Lewis compares the retail industry to the music industry, which has had its share of ups and downs, from the transition of the eight-track tape to records and then later to digital. Retail operations have been around for decades, and how they react to the changing environment around them will determine if they survive or not, he explained. This idea of adapting to a changing environment, Lewis added, is at the heart of the Retail Smarter Conference.

Morgan Ginn is an incoming senior at UF, and the 2017 conference was her second year attending the event. Ginn was also a speaker for the first time this year and sat on a panel detailing the power of internships. She answered questions from a moderator and the audience about what top-performing students look for in an internship and offered advice on how employers can better market their internships to students.

She explained that she likes the conference’s focus on innovation, which ensures that every year includes something new.

“I think that the Retail Smarter Conference is an excellent opportunity for students to network and learn more about what they want to do in retail,” Ginn said. “The conference’s mission is to redefine what smart means to retailers, and I think for students, it’s about redefining what’s innovative in the industry while also redefining retail to them — and to assess what career they could see themselves in one day.”

Ginn said that the Retail Smarter Conference and the Miller Retail Center have played a huge role in her UF experience, helping her land multiple internships and network with professionals in her future industry.

“Retail is huge: One in four people that are employed work in retail, and I don’t think a lot of people realize that,” Ginn said. “At the conference, people are speaking on everything from loss prevention to social good to human resources, all areas which I don’t think people necessarily think of when they think of retail.”

This idea of changing people’s perceptions of retail is at the core of the Retail Smarter Conference. While continuing to support innovative professionals, the conference’s organizers prioritize helping students explore and network within the industry. In an effort to ramp up student involvement, the 2018 Retail Smarter Conference will be held on UF’s campus, further extending its impact on the retail industry both across the country and right at home in the Gainesville area.

 

CAROLINE REDMOND is a recent graduate from the University of Florida with a degree in telecommunications. In her spare time, Caroline enjoys reading, spending time outdoors and yelling at contestants on “Chopped” who try to make last-minute vinaigrettes. She also considers herself an amateur cat photographer — her muse is her cat, Snoop Dogg.

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