The World Retail Congress has yielded its usual mix of outspoken characters and bold pronouncements on the future of retail.
However, J Crew boss Mickey Drexler’s observations on luxury retailing, prompted by a speech by former Louis Vuitton president Yves Carcelle, stood out. Drexler observed: “For me, luxury is about exclusivity, uniqueness - it might be an old vintage car or a vintage watch. It is not aspirational to have whatever everybody else has. There is no exclusivity left.”
Drexler was speaking ahead of J Crew’s much anticipated launch in London tomorrow, ironically on quirky Lamb’s Conduit Street which is awash with unique retailers and products. However, it has become increasingly clear that to offer something truly unique in an online age where shoppers know exactly where and when to find a product is no mean feat. Orla Kiely managing director Dermott Rowan explained the brand has taken an unusual approach in Japan, where it kept certain prints and products unique to specific cities and word quickly spread.
Arcadia boss Sir Philip Green, who shared the stage with Drexler, said a constant strong product offer remains the foundation of retail despite the growth of online and digital innovation.
Elsewhere, transparency has been a key theme as retailers look to rebuild trust eroded by issues from corporation tax controversy to the horse meat scandal. OC&C partner Michael Jary today outlined a number of innovations that have helped address this from Asda’s use of webcams in its Bangladesh factories accessible via its websites – prescient following yesterday’s fire at a factory in Gazipur which killed nine people – and US etailer Everlane which published its margins online to be transparent.
Retailers have also been vehement in backing their formats in the face of criticism. In the blue and red corner, Carrefour chief Georges Plassat insisted the hypermarket is not dead and retailing basics such as great service and, perhaps more simply, clean toilets and good lighting could revive the large store. In the green corner, Ocado boss Tim Steiner said online grocery is in a virtuous cycle whereby the more shoppers who join the channel will lead to the downfall of bricks-and-mortar operators and further online growth.
The congress itself has played host to some unusual spectacles. Retailers and presenters alike were not above a few giggles over the Japanese entry to the Retail Futures Student challenge whose store was named ‘Hard Off’ when translated – although the entry was impressive, as were the winners from New York. And last night’s awards at the Salle Wagram a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe played host to a bonafide Parisian catwalk show, featuring one model with a rather convincing hat in the shape of a flamingo.
Plassat observed in opening the conference that the only constant in retail is change. On this evidence, his thoughts appear astute.
Alex Lawson is senior reporter at Retail Week. He is in Paris for this year’s World Retail Congress.