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Last weekend, I attended the Retail and Luxury Goods Conference at Harvard Business School – first time for me but, apparently, this is their seventh year hosting the conference.  I’ve been looking for smart conversations about the fashion and luxury market, so I thought this would be a good place to start.  Of the almost 400 attendees, I would guess that 70% were MBA students from HBS or other business schools – this is based on squinting my eyes while in a panel session and getting a rough visual proportion of plain black suits with dress shirts, so admittedly unscientific.  The rest of the attendees were mainly industry professionals from apparel, accessories, and beauty companies as well as numerous consultants.

I’ve been to a lot of conferences in my career and I thought the HBS team did a great job organizing this one.  The size was right, the process was efficient and simple, and the venue worked well.  Each session was almost too short at 45 minutes, but it did keep the momentum up, which I thought was good.

In terms of content, I was divided on the quality of the speakers.  The panel discussions were rich with actionable advice and interesting data points.  The keynote speakers, on the other hand, didn’t say anything you wouldn’t expect the CEO of a large-scale global firm to say.  Let me guess…it will be some combination of people, strategy, culture, leadership, differentiation, etc. etc.  Stephen Sadove, CEO of Saks Incorporated summarized their strategy as, “Clarity of strategy.  Differentiated merchandise.  Local marketing.  Great service.”  How is that different than any other luxury retailer?  I was also disappointed that Sadove pitched Saks’ recovery from the recession as a success story, when it seems that they simply weathered it.  The stock price pattern for Saks and two of their (publicly-held) competitors, Macy’s and Nordstrom, look exactly the same, although Saks has the lowest price of the three.

But, as I said, I thought the panel discussions were great and was especially impressed with Gaurav Suri (Google), Mark Bonchek (Sears), Ari Bloom (Alternative Apparel), Charlie Graham (Shop It To Me), and Brian Spaly (Bonobos/Trunk Club).  Here are some tidbits I took from the sessions:

E-commerce panel

  1. We need to think beyond just e-commerce, how do all the commerce channels work together?  Social, mobile, etc.…
  2. Someone mentioned that it’s still clunky to purchase from your smartphone.  I realized that, for all my love of technology, I’ve never purchased anything from my phone.  Will this ever be solved or will it simply be used as an information and marketing channel?
  3. Google:  “We don’t care where you buy, but that we influenced your purchase.”
  4. There was a brief discussion of the democratization of fashion opinion and I wish we explored this further because it feels so overwhelming right now. Are we trapped from making purchase decisions because there are too many opinions?  Are we trapped in design ruts because this makes it hard to tell what consumers want?  Who and what will emerge as the new opinion leaders?

Entrepreneurship panel

Good reminders for all of us…

  1. Generally, you want to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing.
  2. Focus first on the product, not the business model (which is all too easy for MBA students and other business smarties to do).
  3. Make sure the product is fantastic and
  4. It may take many, MANY, iterations to get there.
  5. Think about nontraditional sources of funding – for example, seek funding from your supplier, perhaps in the form of free materials or even favorable production terms.  Ari Bloom: “This can be worth more than cash”.
  6. Make sure that “free” labor such as interns are getting some financial reward – even in non-cash form such as class credit.  They need to have skin in the game.
  7. If you’re going to fail, fail fast and cheaply.

As I said, I came to this conference looking for smart conversations about fashion and luxury.  I think the panels delivered, but the keynotes could have been better.  A few suggestions I would give for next year:

  1. Prep the keynote speakers to go beyond sound bites.  Tell us something we wouldn’t have known by reading the press releases from your company’s website.
  2. Make sure WiFi is readily available (and tell us how to get on it) – this will help those trying to live tweet the conference.
  3. Since there is only enough time for a few questions at the end of each panel, maybe solicit questions in advance.  Pick the best ones to pose to the speakers, so we don’t waste time on questions like, “What does it take to be a great leader?” and “So, is the retail industry hard?”
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