There’s a familiar saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
This advice wasn’t always easy to live out during a global pandemic. Still, it rang true in the months following a 2019 conference that spun off teams of academics and practitioners with a goal of advancing the future of retail marketing.
Not only did working together take us further than we could have gone alone, but the results were better as well. Further and better are a powerful combination, and they inevitably are the fruits of meaningful collaboration.
The Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas hosted the thought leadership conference – “What’s Next for Retail – Research Opportunities and Challenges: Academic and Practitioner Perspectives” – in October 2019. It was supported by the U of A’s Retail Advisory Board and co-sponsored by the Retail Supply Chain Institute at Babson College, Southern Methodist University and the American Marketing Association’s Retail and Pricing SIG.
What made this thought leadership conference special was that it didn’t end after the two days we met at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for Enterprise Development on the U of A campus. There’s value, of course, in conferences where you listen to and interact with other experts and then depart to make use of what you’ve learned.
This gathering added the element of continued collaboration on specific areas about the future of retail.
Representatives from more than 30 companies and more than 30 universities from around the world attended the conference, which included keynote speeches and presentations from industry leaders, as well as breakout sessions on specific topics. The objective was to generate ideas for research and turn those ideas into thought leader articles for a special issue of the Journal of Retailing, which has a long tradition of organizing and supporting such events.
This type of collaborative effort is more important than ever. Directly and indirectly, retail supports more than 42 million jobs in the United States, according to the National Retail Federation, and contributes $2.6 trillion to the annual GDP. It’s a powerful economic force. But it’s also a dynamic industry, and the changes wrought by revolutionary technologies are presenting significant challenges and opportunities.
Academics and practitioners bring unique perspectives and experiences to the ever-changing retail world, and pulling together ideas, thoughts, plans and data is essential to understanding what’s going on and how to respond.
Academics develop theories and methodologies, collect data and build and analyze empirical and analytical models to understand and investigate problems in depth and with rigor. Practitioners identify the relevant retailing problems, while focusing on workable solutions that use the data, visualization and analysis tools they have at their disposal.
Jim Coleman, the U of A provost at the time, and Walton College Dean Matt Waller opened the conference, and set the stage for plenary sessions that featured senior executives such as Cecilia Wu (Walmart’s vice president of customer science), Andres Meija (Coca-Cola’s vice president of shopper marketing), Erin Campbell (Saatchi & Saatchi X’s senior vice president of strategy and digital), and Raju Balan (an account manager with Mu Sigma).
In the breakout sessions, brief presentations by industry leaders covered eight themes: technology (John Hennessy, Elateral), artificial intelligence (Rida Moustafa, Walmart), format (Jonathan Navallo, Walmart), private labels (Suzanne Jervis, Sam’s Club), customer relationship management (Tom Duncan, P&G), merchandising (John Karsberg, H&M), promotions (Renee Brandon, Field Agent) and sustainability (Emi Cardarelli, Unilever).
The participants also visited a Walmart store in Rogers, the Walmart Museum in Bentonville and an automated distribution center in Bentonville. The museum provided background on the thinking of Sam Walton and the history of Walmart, while the store and DC visits offered firsthand insights on innovations in technology that Walmart already is using.
When the conference ended, academics and practitioners from the breakout sessions worked together over the next 18 months to research and write articles for the Journal of Retailing based on ideas that originated at the conference.
About the same time that most of these teams began to get traction on their work, of course, the pandemic took its grip on the world. This affected the collaborations in several ways.
For one, everyone involved suddenly had new and uncharted challenges in their personal and professional lives – from where to work each day to how to adapt in their businesses or classrooms to how to stock up on toilet paper. But it also brought new and interesting aspects to the research because the established topic areas now had fresh, relevant factors that needed to be explored.
I played a small role in helping organize the thought leadership conference, but the majority of the credit goes to others, specifically to Dean Waller, Sharon Bullock, David Speer, Drew Stephens, Cody Jendro, Vikas Anand, Pam Heinzel and Hailey Swalve. It also was my pleasure to serve as one of the editors on the special issue, as well as to work on one of the teams that produced an article. I’m confident that these papers will advance the theoretical study of retail marketing, while also leading to practical changes as we move into the industry’s next frontier.
Dinesh Gauri is a professor and the Walmart Professor of Marketing in the Department of Marketing at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Gauri’s research and teaching interests include retailing, pricing, branding, marketing analytics, shopper marketing, e-commerce and revenue management. He served as an assistant and associate professor of marketing at Syracuse University prior to joining the Walton College. His research has been published in journals such as Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Retailing, Marketing Science, Management Science and Journal of Business Research.