NEW YORK—Amid changing consumer dynamics, supply chain disruption and all of their other challenges, retailers are now faced with figuring out the developing concept of retail as a media channel, and all of the new messaging opportunities this presents. This idea was tackled at the VM Summit in a session appropriately titled, “Retail Is the New Media Channel.”

The session featured three speakers: John Carroll, head of North America Advisory for Coresight Research, one of the most influential retail and economic trend firms in the world; Sydney Stinson Ferguson, vice president, marketing for Sunglass Hut North America; and Louis-Félix Boulanger, co-founder and COO of Montreal-based eyewear retailer BonLook.

Vision Monday’s SVP and editorial director Marge Axelrad set up the session, noting that optical companies “need to begin thinking about messaging in a new way.” She added, “The fast internet and the fast times in which we live are changing the ways in which retailers can become media channels.”

Carroll led off the three panelists, noting that while the U.S. e-commerce market via live streaming was only $3 billion in 2019, Coresight forecasts this will grow to $17 billion in 2022. “That’s a really conservative forecast,” he noted.

One of the reasons for his optimistic projections, he said, is the way live streaming has really taken off in China. Coresight estimated that the livestreaming market in China also was valued at $3 billion back in 2017. This year, however, Coresight forecasts that livestreaming e-commerce will hit $497 billion in China. “As you can see, things in China dramatically, dramatically, changed. This hockey stick kind of move [upward] is something that can happen here in the United States.”

He also noted that he believes there are individuals in China who are achieving over $2 billion in a single livestreaming e-commerce chat. “They go out to millions of people and they’re just talking to people on a Zoom camera…These types of numbers are just mind-boggling.” He said one of the factors that will drive livestreaming growth in the U.S. is that “the age group of 25 to 34 is buying more things, they’re viewing more livestreams and they are actually shopping via livestreams.”

Carroll urged retailers to test live streaming on their own website, even if there’s only one individual retail location in their enterprise. “Don’t worry too much about getting all of the volume that you [might optimistically anticipate], he said, and added, “Don’t let complexity and confusion be your barrier to grow in this livestreaming business.”

Stinson Ferguson of Sunglass Hut told the audience that when the pandemic first began in 2020, the company had “to pivot very, very quickly, and we had to come up with something that could be meaningful to consumers, but was true to our DNA.”

“What we did was to tap into those things that people enjoy and that make them happy,” she said. “How do we make lemonade out of lemons?” So, Sunglass Hut began to use its social media channels to showcase things that “bring joy to consumers during a time that was really, really tough for people.” The retailer also ramped up its support of get-togethers and events such as live yoga sessions and meditation classes, and even supported roller-skating events in Los Angeles and New York.

Stinson Ferguson also noted that for her, as for many people she knows, sunglasses can be almost “magical” in their effect on one’s outlook and sense of well-being. “They have an intrinsic value and an extrinsic value. So you could be having the crappiest day ever and you put on those glasses and you think that you are the ‘flyest’ thing in the world. And because you feel that way, it gives you a sense of confidence.”

She added that “the amazing thing about Sunglass Hut” is that the stores can make the experience even more magical by bringing the consumer “that touch of luxury without all of the costs associated with it. … You may not be able to afford that Chanel bag, but you can buy those [Chanel] glasses and put them on and you can get that same incredible experience.”

She added, “But this was not the moment for us to think that way. This was the moment for us to think about how can we make people feel better about the situation going on in the world. It was less about that commercial moment, and more about how can we bring emotional wellness and well-being to consumers,” she noted, which is what led to the effort to tap into the DNA of the brand.

The final speaker, Boulanger, is co-founder of omnichannel retailer BonLook. He said one of the reasons for starting the BonLook business was because he wasn’t “super happy about the experience he had purchasing eyewear in traditional optical stores.”

He added, “We felt there was a way with e-commerce and other technologies to really create a much different experience and to cater to a consumer who looks like us (in the middle of the Gen X and Gen Y age groups).” The company debuted online in 2012 and has now expanded to 36 physical stores across Canada, and it was acquired by FYidoctors in November 2021.

“From the beginning, we have really viewed retail and e-commerce as one thing melding to offer [a unique] experience to consumers, and not separate channels,” he added.

Looking ahead, Boulanger said he expects the omnichannel to become even more important to retailers, especially as the Millennial population ages and adds to their disposable income. “By 2028, they will have control of more than half of the disposable income in America, which is around $7.1 trillion in disposable income. That’s why you are hearing a lot about livestreaming and being omnichannel and about the shifts that are taking place—it’s really about the rise of this generation into adulthood and making purchasing decisions.”