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A Look to the Future

The algorithmic age, Amazon, AI and big data dominated the conversation during the 18th annual International Retail Design Conference in Seattle, which ended with a moving keynote that eschewed it all



If VMSD’s annual International Retail Design Conference (IRDC) started in one direction – discussing algorithm-driven retail and automation – it ended on a completely opposite (and well-received) note: a closing keynote on lessons learned from a “useless” retail store that made no money and offered merchandise for free.

The themes were fitting for an event that took place this past October 2-4 in Seattle, a city where tech and analog culture often collide, as could be seen during this year’s self-guided tours with highlights of everything from the latest Amazon Go store to the beloved stalwart, Elliott Bay Book Company. For three days, more than 400 creative types filled the ballrooms inside IRDC’s host hotel, Motif Seattle, and absorbed inspiration, best practices, trends and a little cannabis-related dialogue during the more than 25 sessions on the packed agenda.

“What will it take to thrive and survive in the 21st Century?” asked opening presenter and futurist Mike Walsh during his keynote focusing on what’s to come. For the next two days, IRDC speakers were ready to answer just that.

A Look to the Future
Jose Padron of Hershey Co. discusses the latest Times Square store | Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn. (For more images, click here.)


After a little millennial age jab, in which Walsh declared they’re no longer the future, he referenced the new up-and-coming consumer who was born from an algorithmic age and will expect more from retail. “It’s not just about digital, it’s about how the physical and the digital worlds overlap,” he said. “Data will become another sense to humans. Your most valuable product in the 21st century is not the product you sell, but the data.”


In the session “Tapping Into the Senses to Strike an Emotional Cord,” physical and digital worlds collided within the new Hershey Co. (Hershey, Pa.) store in New York’s Times Square. Speakers Jose Padron, Lead Global Retail Design at Hershey, and Monica Gerhardt, VP, Specialty Retail Design at FRCH Design Worldwide (Cincinnati), discussed how the most effective experiences stimulate multiple senses. As such, its new store incorporated elements like a personalization area using digital tablets, a scent-filled kitchen that allows the brand to test spin-off products and artful installations that play with scale.

A Look to the Future
VMSD's Editorial Advisor/New York Editor Eric Feigenbaum moderated a Q&A presentation with Candy Pratts Price, the fabled window designer, formerly of Bloomingdale's | Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn. (For more images, click here)

During “Infinity Concept: The Journey of Something New,” Patricia Heath, VP, Retail Experience, for Samsung Electronics Canada Inc. (Mississauga, Ontario), and George Foussias, Design Director, Senior Associate, Quadrangle (Toronto), presented Samsung Canada’s latest experiential store concept in Toronto that employed a grand and aspirational design to foster engagement and create a brand connection with new customers, which number approximately half of the visitors to that particular store.

During Thursday morning’s Sponsor Case Study Breakfast, presenting/tour sponsor AVIXA (Fairfax, Va.) moderated a discussion on embracing audiovisual experiences to fuel retail growth. Several retailers highlighted their use of technology within stores, including Sephora (San Francisco), which offers services such as Color IQ, a device that scans the customer’s skin to determine the best shade of foundation, and augmented reality technology that allows customers to try on lipsticks or eye shadow virtually.

A Look to the Future
Meg Lefeld of ZenGenius Inc. throws "flying fish" to the team leaders of the 2018 Iron Merchant challenge | Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn. (For more images, click here.)



After the inaugural pre-conference event, Elevating Cannabis Retail, attendees raised a glass to VMSD’s 2018 Designer Dozen award winners, a celebration co-hosted by Wood Dale, Ill.-based Opto Intl. CallisonRTKL (Seattle) surprised attendees with a flash mob before the winners were recognized. Digital screens popped up for the first time in the 13th annual Iron Merchant Challenge, a visual merchandising competition in which six teams are tasked to create a window display that this year centered on a world cause. Using mannequins, Timberland apparel and a (tossed) fish (a very Pacific Northwest secret ingredient), participants created their displays, cocktails in-hand, in an hour. Conference-goers voted throughout the following day, and at the VMSD Awards Luncheon, Iron Merchant emcee and ZenGenius’ (Columbus, Ohio) Joe Baer declared the victorious sash-wearers would be the Orange Team, led by IRDC speaker Chuck Palmer of ConsumerX (Columbus, Ohio). More rounds of applause went to: Story (New York), winner of the 2018 VMSD/Peter Glen Retailer of the Year Award; Los Angeles’ “Coffee for Sasquatch,” by Dan Brunn Architecture (Los Angeles), Retail Renovation of the Year award in the annual Retail Renovation Competition; and Coach’s (New York) “Coach Subway” pop-up shop, Best In Show for the annual International Visual Competition.

A Look to the Future
Closing keynote speaker Adrian Wilson presented his "free store," which served as a "love letter" to retail | Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn. (For more images, click here.)


Despite all the tech talk, speaker and fashion icon Candy Pratts Price regaled the audience with tales from her storied visual merchandising career (she started out as an “information girl” at Bergdorf Goodman) and brought us back to the importance of window displays in the general session “Inside the Show Window,” moderated by Eric Feigenbaum, VMSD’s Editorial Advisor/New York Editor, and President of Embrace Design (New York).  “My favorite moments were the ‘what do we do now’ moments,” she said, referring to when her displays would spark viewer reactions. “A window is not gone in my mind; there are just different ways to do it.”

And in the closing keynote, “The Inutilious Retailer: How a Free Store Changed My Life,” photographer and artist Adrian Wilson recalled the store he opened in New York – his “love letter to retail” – in which all merchandise was free. After entering the store’s intriguingly witty storefront, guests pulled a handle on an old slot machine to open a hidden door that led to a room where they could take an item of clothing and then use an array of vintage printing blocks to design something else to replace it. Wilson joked that he lost $42,600 on what he called “his hobby,” but for him, it was always about connecting people and never about the money. As retailers grapple with ever-changing technology and nimble competitors, Wilson’s story offered a simple antidote: “You can’t compete with the Internet on price, but you can compete with it on humanity.”

Be sure to join us next year in Boston, Sept. 30 – Oct. 2, at the Westin Copley Place for IRDC 2019


For a full gallery of images from IRDC 2018, please click here



Presenting/Tour Sponsor


Diamond Sponsors

Alpolic Metal Composites Materials


Grottini Retail Environments

Interstore | Schweitzer

The Wild

Emerald Sponsors


Axis Display Group

Circle Visual


Kendu In-Store Visual Soltuions



Opto Intl. Inc.

Rainier Industrial Art

RCS Innovations

Visual Citi

Visual Elements


Awards Luncheon Sponsor

LSI Industries

Supporting Sponsors

Axis Global Logistics


Hermitage Lighting

Permit Advisors




Specialty Lighting


Bernstein Display



Circle Visual

Elevating Cannabis Retail (pre-conference)

SevenPoint Interiors

High Road Design Studio

Marijuana Venture magazine

Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn. 



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