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Retail Reborn Episode 3: The Future of Digital Commerce

Doug Stephens speaks with innovators about the technologies and business models driving a new era of online retail — with guests including Shopify President Harley Finkelstein, Christina Fontana, head of Tmall’s fashion and luxury division in Europe and Neha Singh, founder of Obsess.
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LONDON, United Kingdom — In episode 3 of our new podcast series, in which BoF identifies the new fundamentals of a reborn retail industry, presented by Brookfield Properties, we explore the innovations and opportunities set to steer the future of online sales.

“The coronavirus pandemic has become a wormhole into the future — pushing both consumers and retailers firmly across the threshold of the digital era,” says host Doug Stephens, founder of Retail Prophet.

As the pandemic catapulted consumers into a digital world, doubling the pace of online sales growth, this period has also drawn focus to the shortcomings of digital commerce, which critics say is rooted in an anti-social, static and algorithmically driven experience.

For Neha Singh, founder of augmented and virtual reality software platform Obsess, a lack of innovation to the front-end experience is an obvious drawback. “Amazon created the grid interface originally to sell books 25 years ago and the front-end has stayed the same. If you want to create something that's different for a brand or a retailer, they have to put in a lot of their own engineering resources to build something very custom.”

For Tmall, the luxury retail arm of tech behemoth Alibaba, shopping livestreams have become a compelling digital tool to bridge the digital and physical space. Working together with brands, Tmall has “invited people watching livestreams to come into the store for an appointment with a personal shopper,” says Christina Fontana, head of fashion and luxury for Tmall’s luxury division in Europe.

Retailers have to put in a lot of their own engineering resources to build something very custom.

For smaller, independent merchants, off-the-shelf e-commerce solutions through platform technology are democratising the playing field in a way that was impossible 15 years ago and, Shopify President Harley Finkelstein believes, responding to emerging consumer preferences.

“Consumers are now choosing to buy direct from the brands themselves, for price, experience, quality, but also because, as consumers actually believe that in order for us to have a well-rounded, interesting society and culture, we need these small businesses to exist,” says Finkelstein.

“What we may be seeing is a return to human connection, discovery and entertainment in retail, at a scale never before imaginable,” explains Stephens. “We’re seeing technology being used, not to subjugate physical experiences but to supplement them, to enhance and inform them. And vice versa, smart brands are using their physical assets as stages to supply rich experiential content to online audiences.”

Next up, in episode 4, we deep dive into the new challenges and opportunities facing physical retail strategies.

To discover how retail's rebirth will impact your business and learn critical, actionable insights into the challenges and opportunities retail's new ecosystem will bring, subscribe to the series to ensure you never miss an episode.

Expert Commentators:

Neha Singh enables brands and retailers to serve 3D and 360-degree shopping experiences on their websites via Obsess, the augmented and virtual reality software platform she founded in 2017. Prior to Obsess, Singh attained a graduate degree in Computer Science from MIT and has led engineering and product teams at Google and Vogue, building platforms and products that reach millions of users.

Christina Fontana is the head of fashion and luxury for Alibaba-owned Tmall's luxury division in Europe. Joining in 2015, Fontana works to support European brands in leveraging Alibaba's ecosystem and insights to enter the Chinese market and connect them with more than 700 million consumers as they become an increasingly key growth driver for retailers. Prior to her role at Tmall, Fontana has over 20 years' experience working in digital start-ups.

Harley Finkelstein is an entrepreneur, lawyer and president of Shopify, the leading e-commerce solutions company for retailers powering over 1 million online businesses in 175 countries. In addition to his work at Shopify, Finkelstein is an advisor to Felicis Ventures and has been the recipient of several entrepreneurial awards, including the Canadian Angel Investor of the Year Award and Canada's Top 40 Under 40 Award.

Xiaodong Chen is the chief executive of Chinese department store chain Intime. With more than 60 stores in 33 cities across China, Intime leads the charge among brick-and-mortar retail with the backing of e-commerce giant Alibaba. Chen focuses on “new retail’ strategy via omnichannel approaches and the digital restructuring of department stores, and has won numerous awards, including Forbes China’s Best CEO and 2016 China Business Innovation Leader.

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