With the current difficult economic environment there was a noticeably smaller turnout at this year’s conference. Nonetheless it was another great show packed with vendors, innovative solutions, and excellent sessions with great speakers.

The economy was certainly the number one topic and analysts stressed the importance of keeping balance sheets clean and costs down in the coming year. Despite this, everyone still seemed quite upbeat and discussed some of the most important areas to concentrate on in the coming year. Retailers can’t just stand around and wait this out. This is the time to make strategic IT investments. The most talked about areas centered around the web, multi-channel, social media and mobile phones. Everything has to focus on the customer. Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart, summed it up as “Understand your customer…now!” .

2008 saw a significant drop in retail sales, and while growth shrunk in on-line sales too, there was still an overall increase of 7%-12% over the past year. Retailers must continue to invest in this ever-growing and ever-changing channel of opportunity. Retailers must move beyond simple disconnected e-commerce sites with static photos and one-line descriptions to web-sites that come to life and tell a story with multi-angle shots, videos, detailed descriptions, and information-sharing. UK Retailer ASOS is a great example that provides a rich on-line shopping experience.

Social media was prevalent amongst all those that spoke. Leading retailers are starting to build communities through the use of tools such as facebook and twitter. They are opening channels of communication and allowing their consumers to share information. Take a look at the online community Mothercare built at gurgle.com. As Mitch Joel, President of Twist Image said, “You must get consumers to ‘join’ your brand”. Build a story, relate to your customer, and you can build a community one consumer at a time.

Mobile phone technologies were another big theme at this year’s convention. Phones that include tag readers, can request prices and information, can search for competitive prices on the web and then can complete transactions via their phone or order products and pick up merchandise in the store.

It is no longer enough to simply build a new channel through the web or phone. All channels must be fully connected and completely seamless to the consumer. Consumers want to shop how, where, and when they want. Buy online or order by phone and pick up in the store or request in-store and have it shipped direct and so on. All channels have to support the consumer, know who they are at all touch points, and let them shop how they desire to.

In future postings, I will take a closer look at how some of these retailers are using social media and other tools to build their community and further enhace the consumer’s overall shopping experience. Should you have anything to share with us about your own use or other examples of retailers using social media effectively, please leave a comment and share it with us all.