What retail engagement looks like in 2021

By Mike Butler

Normally January and February are on fire with face-to-face retail events.  In January we board planes to a chilly New York City and return exhausted but exhilarated; in February it’s all stations go in preparation for Retail Tomorrow, our two-day conference which has become a must-attend for senior UK retailers. Things being what they are, neither of these events are happening in the same way this year. What was hailed as NRF 2021 ‘Chapter One’ took place over mid-January with a wide variety of sessions online. And – partly billed as a ‘wrap-up’ of NRF highlights for those unable to attend multiple sessions at difficult (US) time slots, our own evening event ‘Retail’s Big Reset’ took place at the end of last week and was a huge success.

I always try to keep my feet on the ground in these blogs and deliver objective and – I hope – insightful thought-leadership.  It’s not about blowing the trumpet for Retail in Detail or getting carried away with hyperbole.  But when I say our event was a huge success, I mean huge.  It was an absolute eye-opener for everyone involved – retailers, retail technology partners, ourselves as retail marketeers and thought-leaders – around what not just the here and now of online retail events can look like (with physical get-togethers on hold due to the pandemic) but the very future of such events.  It felt like a game-changer.

I realise that many suspect sales and marketing agencies of making up quotes (we don’t, by the way – for one reason, getting caught out in an untruth just isn’t great PR and would defeat the good purpose).  When I read through feedback from our evening event, this jumped out at me as exactly what we’d have hoped people would say, but trust me it’s real (or trust Steve Fisher of Burberry, who said it):

“Without doubt the best networking event that I’ve participated in since Covid hit us – great content, great format.”

We’d used our online event platform a couple of times before (including as it happens for the McDonald Butler virtual Xmas Party) and each time gave us more confidence and ideas around how to innovate and engage.  An easy and intuitive log-in and a great digital design put people at ease immediately and helped them navigate the event – where, just as in real life, you could move to different areas of “the room” and sit at different tables depending on who you wanted to chat to.  When it came time for presentation, we switch over to ‘broadcast’ mode to make sure no-one was in danger of missing the two main presentations.  Technical support was relaxed but always available with a meeting host, should anyone have any queries.  Thankfully, no-one got lost.

What was missing?  What is there no acceptable virtual substitute for?  Well, food and drink – so we couriered a package of fine wines and cheeses to all attendees which kept things flowing nicely and went down great.  While our formal sessions wrapped up at around 7:30, plenty of retailers and partners stayed on to network and enjoy a shared drink long into the evening.  Which is frankly the best testament we could have hoped for.

There’s plenty more to share about both this event and the opportunities this platform has proven it can deliver, but there’s only so much I can do by describing it in words.  Let me just say that if you’d like to chat more or have a demonstration don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

When I blogged last year about the acceleration of virtual events, I made the point that McDonald Butler has events in its DNA and there was no London agency more disappointed than us with having to bench our roundtables, conferences and physical events when Covid hit.  And while we weren’t the only agency to offer ‘virtual event’ services to plug the gap, it felt to me like for a lot of agencies their heart wasn’t really in it (let alone the fact that many of them didn’t seem to have done any).  Certainly if I was asking an agency to run an online event for me, I’d be hard pressed to find a more knock-it-out-of-the-park example of success than ‘Retail’s Big Reset’.

So forgive me if I’ve got a little over-excited, but if I’m honest I think even I was a little surprised by how big a hit this was, and I’m genuinely keen to share the possibilities.  I have a feeling that this is what the future of such B2B evening networking events might look like, even when the pandemic has been and gone.

Turning back to all things retail, NRF 2021 ‘Chapter Two’ is scheduled to take place in June this year, and we’ve already been asked by retailers and partners to do another wrap-up like this one, which we’ll be delighted to do.  All things being equal, we’re also still looking ahead positively to running ‘Retail Tomorrow’ at the Four Seasons in Hampshire, in September.  As they say: watch this space…

And last but by no means least, what was the content of our event last week that was so compelling and went down so so well with retailers?  Well, that’s worth its own separate blog…