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IRDC 2019: For The People

The 19th annual International Retail Design Conference (IRDC) convened in Boston where discussions swirled about VR/AR, creating a sense of place, building trust in a post-truth world and why it’s not always business to consumer, but human to human



For more photos of the 2019 International Retail Design Conference (IRDC), click here.

THE INTERNATIONAL RETAIL DESIGN CONFERENCE (IRDC) has served as a source of inspiration and information to retail industry professionals for nearly two decades. This year’s edition, held Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at Boston’s Westin Copley Place hotel, and presented by VMSD magazine, was no exception. Hundreds of attendees from a variety of retail and design sectors came ready to be surprised and delighted with engaging talks, rousing interactive sessions and networking galore during the 19th annual event.

IRDC 2019: For The People
Johnny Cupcakes, the opening keynote of IRDC 2019 | Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.

On the packed agenda of more than 25 breakout sessions, general sessions and keynotes were big names such as hometown entrepreneur Johnny Cupcakes, Brandstream CEO and author Scott Bedbury, David Kepron, VP of Global Creative Strategies at Marriott Intl., and WD Partners’ EVP Lee Peterson. Photographer, artist and creator of the Inutilious Retailer Adrian Wilson returned, closing the conference with yet again an important message – this time about the need for civility in retail. Civility and standing for things other than profit, and the notion of using hospitality influences to create a sense of place within stores, emerged as themes throughout, leaving conference-goers to marinate on these ideas as they explored the city during the self-guided Retail Inspiration Tours or mingled with peers at this year’s closing reception.

No Business Like…

“Whatever business you’re in, you’re in the people business,” Bedbury said during his keynote session, “Building Brand Trust in a Post-Truth World.” Bedbury’s impressive discussion of how great brands are master designers and storytellers – using his own career successes with Nike and Starbucks as examples – echoed sentiments heard in the opening keynote with Johnny Earle (a.k.a. Johnny Cupcakes). Earle, whose irreverent Johnny Cupcakes clothing brand (complete with a store that mimics a bakery by way of sight and smell) has earned quite the cult following, spoke about selling memories rather than just merchandise and emphasized fun and creating a human-to-human connection with his customers. “We poke fun at pop culture and make strangers smile,” he said. True to form, Earle surprised IRDC attendees with an on-site pop-up shop filled with merchandise.

IRDC 2019: For The People
Scott Bedbury presenting during the second day of IRDC 2019 | Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.


In the breakout session, “Reinventing a Successful Urban Retail Hub,” Gensler’s David Glover and Julie Reker, along with Boston Properties EVP Bryan Koop, discussed local shopping hub The Prudential Center’s bold renovation, transforming it from a mall-like distribution spot to a light- and plant-filled space that encourages visitors to not only shop but also sit and relax via a variety of comfortable furniture. “We’re no longer in the retail business, we’re in the place-making business,” Koop said.

IRDC 2019: For The People
Lee Peterson’s panel, “Why Stores,” discussed the importance of physical retail | Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.

Similarly, in the interactive panel discussion “Why Stores?” Peterson pondered, “Is it time for retail to step back and look at restaurant and hospitality experiences as influences?” Panelists Bill Sleeth of Panera Bread, Baskin-Robbins/Dunkin’ Brands’ Carol Austin, Volume Experiences’ Kirsten Rowe and Shawmut Design and Construction’s David Margolius addressed this as well as the burning question of how stores remain relevant even when closures continue to mount. “They’re not dying, they’re just changing,” Rowe said. “There is still an opportunity in retail to surprise and delight.”

One high-tech way in which retailers are looking to engage is through virtual reality/augmented reality (VR/AR). In the IRDC pre-conference session, “Utilizing VR/AR as an Architectural Service,” speakers Brian Dyches, CorbisStudio, and Megan Lubaszka, Gensler, gave a rundown of how firms can capitalize on these visualization tools and use them as a value-add to their roster of services. “VR isn’t just a thing and AR isn’t just a thing,” Dyches said. “They will be everything.”

The Win Column

This year’s 14th annual Iron Merchant Challenge went rogue. Emcee and ZenGenius Inc. Co-founder and Creative Director Joe Baer donned colonial-inspired garb and announced teams would be creating a social media-worthy pop-up shop featuring tea in the popular visual merchandising challenge. Mannequins were donated by CNL Mannequins and clothing was provided by Toronto-based brand Roots, while the secret ingredient (announced in grand fashion via bicycling newspaper gal – a.k.a. VMSD Editor-in-Chief/Associate Publisher and IRDC Conference Chair Jennifer Acevedo) was revealed to be copies of The Boston Globe. The teams also had to concoct a drinkable “mocktail” tea recipe, using product from Good Nature organic tea, as part of their installation and decorate three walls of a pop-up that surrounded a faux window display, which acted as this year’s Instagrammable moment – all within 60 minutes. On Wednesday, Oct. 2, the Green team, led by Beth Harlor, Director of Design at Bayer, was announced as the winner and laid claim to the victory sashes with their wintry landscape backdrop, complete with a Boomerang/Instagram-ready tea-inspired setup.

IRDC 2019: For The PeopleIRDC 2019: For The People
Jennifer Acevedo, VMSD‘s Editor-in-Chief/Associate Publisher and IRDC Conference Chair, reveals the 2019 Iron Merchant secret ingredient; Joe Baer and Meg Lefeld of ZenGenius pose during the rousing cocktail party | Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.


Other winners recognized during the VMSD Awards Luncheon on Wednesday included RH, formerly known as Restoration Hardware, winner of the 2019 VMSD/Peter Glen Retailer of the Year; Somany Tiles, the 2019 Visual Competition Best in Show winner (featured in VMSD’s July/August 2019 issue); and Claus Porto, 2019 Retail Renovation of the Year (featured in VMSD’s September 2019 issue). Winners of VMSD’s annual Designer Dozen (featured in VMSD’s April 2019 issue) were fêted during a rousing opening reception.

IRDC 2019: For The PeopleIRDC 2019: For The People
The Green Team won this year’s Iron Merchant Challenge; winners from the International Visual Competition
and Renovation Competition were recognized on stage | Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.

In Closing

After leaving quite a few attendees misty-eyed during last year’s closing keynote session, artist and photographer Adrian Wilson reprised his closing role – this time, with a valuable lesson on civility and human interaction in retail. His panel discussion, “A History of Boston Retail: How to Stay Relevant for Nearly 400 Years,” featured long-standing Boston-based retailers, Stephen L. Willett, President of L.J. Peretti Cigars, Jack Gurnon, President of Charles Street Hardware, and The Boston Globe retail and business reporter Janelle Nanos.

IRDC 2019: For The People
Adrian Wilson and his closing keynote panel | Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.

Using snippets from the “Shopkeepers Guide,” originally published in 1853, Wilson and his panelists discussed a few of the ways they’ve been able to remain successful over the years. “If a customer calls, we always listen,” Gurnon said.

IRDC 2019: For The PeopleIRDC 2019: For The People
Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.


Next year marks IRDC’s 20th year. Stay tuned to and for 2020 dates and details. Be sure to see other #irdc2019 highlights by following us on Instagram @IRDC2020 and @vmsdmag.

[📷: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.]

For more IRDC 2019 photos, please click here.

Thank You To Our 2019 Sponsors
Presenting/Tour Sponsor:


Diamond Sponsors:

  • Alpolic Metal Composite Materials
  • OPTO Intl.
  • Reflect Systems

Emerald Sponsors:

  • AGI
  • Colite
  • D|Fab
  • D3 LED
  • McRae
  • Tectonics

Supporting Sponsors:

  • Bergmeyer
  • Ceramic Technics Ltd.
  • Cubic
  • JPMA
  • Karen Pearse Global Direct
  • NEC
  • RCS Innovations

A Special Thanks to Our Iron Merchant Donors:

  • CNL Mannequins
  • Roots
  • Good Nature



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