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IRDC 2021 Recap

The International Retail Design Conference returned in 2021 with an in-person celebration in the Mile High City.




Scan this QR code for a link to the online photo gallery from IRDC 2021.

Scan this QR code for a link to the online photo gallery from IRDC 2021.

VMSD HOSTED ITS 21ST annual International Retail Design Conference (IRDC) – this year, in person – at the Sheraton Denver Downtown in Denver, Sept. 21-22.

After nearly two years of Zoom calls, limited travel and working from home, the excitement surrounding the event was palpable among conference-goers. With an incomparable line-up of compelling educational content, interactive workshops and (who could forget) the crowd-favorite Iron Merchant Challenge, IRDC 2021 reaffirmed the importance of collaboration to our industry.

The conference officially kicked off with keynote speaker Brian Solis, Digital Anthropologist, Futurist and Global Innovation Evangelist, Salesforce, who discussed the emerging customer experience economy. According to Solis, 84 percent of consumers say the shopping experience is as important as the actual product a retailer is selling, so he encouraged the audience to look for places in their own companies where friction exists and erase it.

 (LEFT) Brian Solis opens IRDC with a compelling keynote; (ABOVE) VMSD’s Jennifer Acevedo sits down for a fireside chat with Dick’s Sporting Goods’ Toni Roeller; (BOTTOM) Bevan Bloemendaal led a panel discussion on designing healthy spaces.

(LEFT) Brian Solis opens IRDC with a compelling keynote; (ABOVE) VMSD’s Jennifer Acevedo sits down for a fireside chat with Dick’s Sporting Goods’ Toni Roeller; (BOTTOM) Bevan Bloemendaal led a panel discussion on designing healthy spaces.

“With every tech revolution, society changes, business changes, life changes. We adapt and keep up, or we become obsolete,” Solis reminded attendees.


During the bank of breakouts following the opening keynote, Brian Dyches, VMSD’s Next Store columnist, and Principal and Founder of Ensemble Business Group, moderated a panel featuring Michelle M. Collins, Founder & President, A Non-Agency, and Kyle Hjelmeseth, President, G+B Digital Management, which explored how retail brands can leverage social media influencers.

The last general session of the opening day, “Rethink Retail Therapy: Designing Healthy Spaces,” featured moderator Bevan Bloemendaal, VP, National Practice Leader – Retail, Nelson Worldwide, highlighting the importance of creating healthy spaces through salutogenic design with the help of panelists Bill Browning, Partner, Terrapin Bright Green, and Carolyn Rickard-Brideau, Partner/Corporate President, Little. “Experiencing 40 seconds of nature is enough to quiet your pre-frontal cortex,” Browning said.

After the sessions wrapped up the first day, attendees were encouraged to explore the host city on a self-guided walking tour. With exciting neighborhoods from RiNo (famous for its incredible murals) to LoDo, Denver’s crisp air and gorgeous, sunny skies provided the ideal backdrop for an adventure.

Once attendees were back at the hotel that evening, the 15th annual Iron Merchant Challenge kicked off, emceed by Joe Baer of Columbus, Ohio-based ZenGenius Inc. Five multidiscplinary teams were challenged to create a window display marrying the themes of street art and inclusivity plus the secret ingredient – this year, Christmas lights, which were invented in Denver – all in an hour with cocktails in hand. (A special thank-you to our event sponsors Axis Display Group, which provided new window displays for the event, and Fusion, which provided mannequins that included a range of skin tones and body types.) Laura Phelps Rogers, a local Denver artist, was on hand to get the audience involved in creating some artwork of their own. The end result was an acrylic painting on a series of canvases, spelling out “LUXURY.” Students from Colorado State University participated on each team this year, working alongside industry veterans.

After a slew of engaging case study presentations from our event sponsors the morning of Sept. 22, VMSD’s Editor-in-Chief/Associate Publisher Jennifer Acevedo sat down with Toni Roeller, SVP of In-Store Environment, Dick’s Sporting Goods, for a fireside chat about Dick’s latest concepts – House of Sport and Public Lands – and how experience is driving the future of retail design. Roeller discussed the importance of creating a community hub and having the “right” service level, as well as how something as simple as having knowledgeable employees can make a big difference to customers, like having associates who can fix equipment or can offer nutritional advice. Roeller explained that “brands can atrophy – it all comes down to the service you provide.”

VMSD hosted an awards luncheon that afternoon, which highlighted winners from its International Visual Competition, Retail Renovation Competition, Designer Dozen (2020 and 2021 winners), and the coveted VMSD/Peter Glen Retailer of the Year award, which this year was bestowed on Target. After a morning of attendees voting for their favorite displays, the Blue Team, led by Jay Highland, was announced as the winning team of the Iron Merchant Challenge. Phelps Rogers’ painting, made with audience participation, was also auctioned off to benefit PAVE.


IRDC wouldn’t be the same without audience engagement, and that’s where interactive workshops come into play. After the awards luncheon, Bruce Parsons and Holly Cline, both of Radford University, presented “Rethinking Retail: Connecting Through Design Thinking and Storytelling,” which challenged attendees to develop a storytelling and connection plan for their retail spaces.

David Kepron, NXTLVL Experience Design, and Lu Hanessian, Integrate Resilience, facilitated “The Upside of Upheaval: Harnessing Our Potential for Resilience from the Inside Out,” which examined the potential of untapped resources within ourselves.

Closing keynote speaker Zach Duenow, GSK, wrapped up the two days with an original composition.

Closing keynote speaker Zach Duenow, GSK, wrapped up the two days with an original composition.

After a final bank of breakout sessions, the conference closed with an emotional and thoughtful presentation by Zach Duenow, Global Director Brand Building + Creative Excellence, GSK. He examined how companies and organizations can become blinded by addictive thought patterns and behaviors, relating it to the 12-step program for sobriety.

Organizations can break the cycle, he explained, offering strategies for avoiding common pitfalls. At the close of the presentation, Duenow grabbed his guitar, and sporting a harmonica on a neck holder, sang a folksy original song to close out the 2021 conference.

We’ll be announcing IRDC’s 2022 location in the near future, so stay tuned to and for updates.

📷: Ralf Kircher

Drawing on more than 125 years of history serving the retail design market, VMSD magazine provides retail professionals with the most up-to-date, innovative retail design ideas and industry news through its industry-leading magazine, website, social media channels and bulletins.



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