Online or In-Store: What Event Organizers Can Learn from the Retail Battle

Author: David McMillin       

Today’s headlines tell a sad story about the state of the retail industry. From concerns about bankruptcy for Sears to sales declines for Macy’s and Nordstrom, some of the most well-known places to shop have fallen on hard times. Many might draw a logical conclusion about the current state of retail: Since it’s easier — and often cheaper — to shop online, the shift to digital purchasing is inevitable.

However, the story isn’t so simple. In fact, 91 percent of shoppers made purchases in physical stores during the 2015 holiday shopping season, and by 2020, McKinsey predicts that 80 percent of retail sales will still happen within the four walls of a store.

“It’s not all doom and gloom for retail,” Nancy Drapeau, PRC, senior research director at the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), told PCMA. “Some department stores have been challenged by the readjustment of transactions to e-commerce, but as a sector, retail is doing okay. You’re not going to see the absolute disappearance of brick-and-mortar stores.”

Drapeau points out that the public can expect to see an increase in the number of physical locations from surprising names. Consider Amazon, the ultimate giant in online shopping, which has opened 13 storefront bookstore locations, and has more than 40 Amazon pop-up stores currently open around the country. “It’s about the shopper experience,” Drapeau said. “Whoever delivers the best experience will be able to retain that business in a brick-and-mortar store and online.”

Online or On-Site

The digital-versus-physical debate also resonates with many event organizers. As more prospective attendees can find educational content online, plenty of professionals in the meetings and events industry have worried that convention centers and conference venues could go the way of shopping malls and traditional retail locations experiencing lighter foot traffic. If the same product is available online for cheaper, what’s stopping attendees from ditching physical for a more convenient digital option?

The answer, it turns out, is the same for the events industry: a willingness to experiment with new formats and new content. That experimentation must focus on creating an experience worth talking about instead of a transaction worth completing. Drapeau pointed to the NAB Show, the annual event for the National Association of Broadcasters. Just like the retail industry has faced challenges in the digital age, the NAB community has also faced plenty of hurdles from Netflix, Spotify, and other on-demand entertainment services. However, NAB is far from a dinosaur. With communities dedicated to mobile and AR/VR, discussions focused on how radio will fit in with the driverless car movement, and more, the show managed to attract more than 103,000 attendees in 2017. Organizers aren’t taking an old-school, physical-only approach, either. Last year’s live-streamed broadcast of the NAB Show LIVE attracted more than 1.3 million people. “The show,” Drapeau said, “is as relevant today to content creators as it was 10 years ago.”

Evolution Is Essential

To maintain a similar degree of relevancy, event organizers should keep a close eye on what retailers are doing to drive face-to-face traffic this holiday shopping season. It’s not going to be as simple as opening at 1:00 a.m. the morning after Thanksgiving or offering big discounts. Consider Walmart’s “Rock This Christmas” campaign, which includes more than 20,000 themed holiday parties at all of its Supercenter locations where kids can take selfies with Santa and test out new games. Target is taking a similar approach with a photo booth that lets kids look like they’re sliding down a chimney with Santa and in-store holiday treats on weekends. In other words, their event-driven strategy relies on only-in-person experiences and benefits.

Drapeau said that everyone can embrace a valuable lesson from the retail industry. “We all have to evolve,” Drapeau said. “And we have to be able to do it quickly.”

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