With retail sales consistently on the mend, 40 top national chain store executives on Friday turned to their industry's next wild ride.
"Except for a few economic storm clouds, the worst is over," said Steve Sadove, chief executive officer of Saks Inc. "We feel good about the luxury business long term again and applying new technology to sell to customers anywhere, anytime and any way they want."
That could be online in 3D. HD browsers over a keypad that's just a projection. A smart phone that doubles as a credit card and can summon a clerk. Or some type of social media like Facebook that has not surfaced yet.
Such visions have dangled in front of retailers for 20 years. But now the speed, miniaturization and storage capacity of computer power is accelerating fast enough to make it happen within five years, experts told executives gathered at the annual Global Retail Marketing Association leadership forum at the Don CeSar Beach Resort.
"Technology is changing faster than ever, and these next five years will be one big whoosh," said Dan Burris, author/futurist of Flash Foresight who advises Fortune 500 companies. "We are just at the start of what will become a mountain of apps that turn the iPhone into MyPhone. It will be by me, for me."
Terry Leahy, who transformed Tesco into the discount/food store giant of the United Kingdom and the world's third-largest retailer, heaped credit on high-tech data mining that told his managers what customers want. But the former Tesco chief executive sees low-tech keys to the future, too.
"Anyone who sells products that truly make people look good or make them healthy and live longer can do well," he said.
Retailers who understand that shoppers feel busier than ever will do well to make convenience and simplifying peoples lives part of their strategy.
Tesco, for instance, runs sprawling stores as large as Walmart Supercenters. But it developed a scaled-down neighborhood food store that's a third the size of a CVS. Equipped with a bakery, it stocks 4,000 items, a tenth of what's in a Sweetbay Supermarket.
There are 3,000 in 14 countries.
"It's close by for people who don't want to shop a huge food store more than once a week," he said. "People often don't know until driving home what they're having for dinner."
Tesco has been building the U.S. version - called Fresh and Easy - in the Pacific Southwest since 2007, and this year it spreads to the San Francisco area.
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.