Q. Why is it important to focus on the challenges of the retail industry?
Retail is important for several reasons. First of all, the industry is a huge part of the global economy and many of the world's largest companies are retailers. In the United States alone, 15 million people are employed in retail. The industry is one of the leading employers of unskilled labor across the globe, and four major geographic regions—the United States, China, Japan, and Western Europe—account for 67 percent of worldwide retail sales. On top of that, the retail power structure continues to shift, with China on pace to become the largest retail market.
Q. Why do retail leaders need help navigating today's marketplace?
Consider what has happened in the past couple of decades. Most of the top 20 retailers in 1996 are no longer among the top 20 today. Why? Because sustaining leadership in retail is more difficult than ever in a dynamic marketplace where the biggest retailers are getting bigger and online retailers are growing the fastest. There is a global graveyard of failed retailers that expanded overseas without understanding that different cultures have different retail structures and other unique characteristics in the way people buy.
Today's companies have a wide range of distribution channels to manage. For example, huge retail platforms have emerged, providing retailers with a place to sell their products (for a fee)—but also posing a risk to those companies. Amazon, which began as an e-tailer that bought and resold products, now allows companies to distribute products and gain market share through its platform. However, Amazon collects sales data about the products on its platform, and in some cases uses that data to offer a competing product. Similarly, eBay started out 20 years ago allowing peer-to-peer auctions but is now very much a business-to-consumer retailer, and Alibaba initially provided a business-to-business platform for wholesalers but today sells mostly to consumers.
Then there's Facebook, which many retailers use to connect with customers. Facebook has about a billion members and more information about them–what they like, what their friends like–than any other company. So it has a fantastic retail opportunity right in the palm of its hand, and is poised to become a competitor to retailers as it desperately searches for new revenue streams. The same is true for other major social media companies, which can pose a significant threat to established retailers if they jump into the marketplace. And speaking of big data, CarMax is a company that collects and analyzes loads of information and has completely revolutionized the way people deal with secondhand cars.
What makes this challenge particularly daunting for retailers is that this online platform landscape evolves very quickly—much faster than traditional distribution channels. If you add in shifting views and capabilities in digital advertising and customer data collection, ever-evolving threats posed by cybercrime, and new opportunities to connect with and serve customers outside a "shopping" experience, it's clear that retailers are facing significant obstacles and would benefit from new insights and strategies.
Q. Why should industry executives attend the Retail Forum for Senior Leaders?
This forum offers a unique opportunity for leaders to come together and exchange views, learn from each other, build networks, and think their way through today's unbelievably complex landscape. They'll be able to engage with highly accomplished faculty and elite leaders with diverse backgrounds, and they'll come away with broad insights and practical strategies for overcoming obstacles, capitalizing on opportunities, and driving success.
Q. What types of leaders should attend this program?
This forum is designed for senior executives of global or large regional retail organizations who are charged with making decisions that affect the future of their companies. It is also suited for high-potential managers who are on track to be in decision-making roles in the future. Specifically, it's ideal for executives who make key strategy-related decisions regarding competitive positioning, marketing, the supply chain, operations, IT, and human resources.
Q. How does this program differ from a typical company's internal program?
An internal program is excellent at conveying established best practices within a company, while attending the Retail Forum allows participants to challenge conventional wisdom. And it's conventional wisdom that has caused many top retailers to lose their way. Survival in today's marketplace requires the courage to think and act differently, and that's what this program emphasizes. Participants interact with and learn from other senior executives from around the world, and discussions are led by experienced faculty who have in-depth knowledge of the big issues facing retailers today.
Q. What makes executive education at Harvard Business School a unique program?
At HBS, we're dedicated to training leaders to make a difference. Our expertise lies in examining the big picture. For every function that we address in our programs, our focus is on strategy, relevant learning, and research that provide insight into complex decisions. We recognize that the nitty-gritty detail is essential, but we also know that it can be overwhelming. That's why we base our research on the details and present it within the framework of the big picture.