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At Propelify festival, talk centers on future of retail in an e-commerce world

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Panelists Jesse Middleton and Alana Branston are interviewed by Jason Abbruzzese at the Propelify festival.
Panelists Jesse Middleton and Alana Branston are interviewed by Jason Abbruzzese at the Propelify festival. - ()

Entrepreneurs, tech businesses and retailers gathered in Hoboken on Thursday at the second annual Propelify Innovation Festival to network and share their experiences with aspiring entrepreneurs.

Among more than 10,000 attendees, panelists spoke of the opportunities they saw when they began to work with their organizations, as well as the changing landscape of tech-enabled business and its effect as a disruption to the market.

“It’s an amazing time to be a technologist. … the barriers to entry have become so low that, if you want to start something, there has never been a time in the history of the world that has been better to start a tech-enabled, tech-powered business,” said Jack Hanlon, vice president of analytics for Jet.com. “Some of the challenges, as a result, have shifted. Whereas before, you would have had to raise an insane amount of money or buy custom servers … now the challenge is about discipline and, given all of these things at your disposal, how do you make sure your business is about what you actually do?”

Jet.com is an e-commerce website for grocery shopping as well as conventional e-commerce products, like appliances and clothing.

Hanlon’s talk, “Forget Machine Learning If You Don’t Own Use Learning,” focused on the importance of being able to apply new technologies like deep learning and automation properly to make a personalized user experience.

“Personalization is an amazing opportunity right now, because of the power that machine learning and deep learning can bring to bear on the types of problems that we have,” he said. “We can actually talk about achieving meaningful one-to-one personalization. And I’m not just talking about products, that’s a pretty narrow view of what personalization can be, but actually a whole experience on a website that just feels right. We’ve never had more power to solve those types of problems, but, in trying to solve those problems, it takes some advanced tools, and whenever we introduce advanced tools we introduce a lot of opportunity to fall flat. Bad personalization and bad solutions are worse than no personalization and no solution.”

A panel that included the co-founder and CEO of Bulletin, Alana Branston, and WeWork Labs co-founder Jesse Middleton also mentioned the opportunities that emerge in retail with the introduction of technology.

“In retail, what we’ll see is, 100 percent of brands that don’t yet make $1 billion a year need an option, which is both economically viable, but also scalable and flexible where they are able to shift with the trends that happen,” Middleton said.

He mentioned the shoe company Allbirds and how the company made its name, at least to him and a modest number of people in San Francisco, through Facebook advertising, and compared its global reach to the potential savings a company could see as opposed to signing a lease in a downtown urban area.

Jack Hanlon of Jet.com was one of the speakers at the Propelify festival.
Jack Hanlon of Jet.com was one of the speakers at the Propelify festival. - ()

“I don’t know if anyone has taken a retail lease in SoHo, but it can cost you around $1.5 million a year just to lease space,” he said. “And that’s for 1,000 square feet, maybe. When you think about a brand that makes even $100 million a year, to spend 1.5 percent of the money they make on a single space in SoHo sounds like an insane thing to do when your audience is most likely global.

“I think what we’re going to see is, I say 100 percent a little facetiously, but 100 percent of brands that are not above $100 million or $200 million, this will be the only option. The only one their investors will at least say OK on. The only one a bank is going to back them with a loan on. And from all the other players, there’s going to be that question of, even if you make $1 billion a year, should you actually spend the money on a 10-year lease in SoHo for $15 million. I don’t think that’s a good idea, either, but we’ll get there later.”

Branston said that, although the global reach is possible through online marketing, customers still want the ability to experience an item before making a final purchase. Her company, Bulletin, curates largely online products to be displayed in spaces in New York, Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.

“I personally find most of my personal products and brands through Instagram, and I think stores should look a lot like that,” She said. “I think what we’re doing when we think about department stores and that model, is building something that is dynamic the way that Instagram is, where there is always new products, there’s always new brands, and then it’s really our job, almost as curators, to bring these brands together and to make each store like its own experience and its own concept and giving a reason for people to keep going there, rather than having five different department stores and they all look and have the same goods.

“Now with technology and Shopify (an e-commerce retailer) and all that’s out there, it’s so easy to start a business to start a brand, to start pushing your product that we just see this rising in entrepreneurship of brands that we could be working with.”

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Mario Marroquin

Mario Marroquin

Mario Marroquin covers real estate. A native of El Salvador, Mario is bilingual in English and Spanish. He graduated from Penn State University and worked in Pennsylvania before moving to New Jersey. His email is mariom@njbiz.com.

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