In a world where consumers shop on their phones, hate being “sold to,” and want everything instantly… what’s a retailer to do?

Coca-Cola’s Julie Hamilton had answers at the annual World Retail Congress in Rome, Italy. The forum brings together several hundred top-tier executives across all major retail sectors, including food, beverages, fashion, technology, entertainment and finance.

In a headlining speech, the company's chief customer and commercial leadership officer discussed five major themes reshaping the world of retail:

Julie Hamilton onstage at the World Retail Congress

1. Changing and Changing Fast

Today’s retail landscape is defined by disruption. Hamilton pointedly described how technology is empowering shoppers at an unprecedented pace. “They have a much deeper understanding of the ramifications of their purchase... and they demand faster, better and more accurate information about the products they buy and its community and environmental impact.” Traditional retail models are also challenged by the growth of non-linear paths to purchase “that can involve social media, store visits and online purchase, sometimes all at once,” she added. Hamilton said that although these changes may appear to be “redefining everything we do” in retail, this landscape is in many ways not new to Coca-Cola. “Dating back 129 years, we’ve always embraced the challenge of remaining relevant to each new generation.”

2. Understanding the ‘Past is Present’

It’s important to recognise the “past is already present” in the world of retail. Because consumers’ shopping habits are changing so quickly, all companies – including Coca-Cola – must have a relentless focus on building their capabilities and portfolio for tomorrow, not today. Retailers must use data and research to “deeply understand” their customers and consumers in order to “go where they are going, sometimes before they get there,” she said. Companies like Coca-Cola will be successful by constantly evaluating and refining their business models so our system can adapt as quickly as our customers and consumers need us to.

3. The Importance of the ‘Three Rs’

The key to any business staying relevant is based on what Hamilton calls the “Three R’s.” Companies must deliver:

• The right and relevant brands;
• The right retail experience; and
• The right kind of consumer engagement and marketing.

For right and relevant brands, Hamilton singled out Coca-Cola as an example of continuously evolving a powerful brand to capture new consumption opportunities that meet the needs of each new generation of consumers.

“Unlike 100 or even five years ago,” she said, “today our consumers can enjoy a Coca-Cola with sugar or without, in small or large portions, or in low-, no- and full calorie versions. In other words, we are not standing still.”

Hamilton said companies must also support their brands with the right retail experiences, which are increasingly all about “customisation and personalisation.” Hamilton walked attendees through the "Share a Coke" and Coke Bottle 100 campaigns, which allow Coca-Cola to “build relationships with consumers, not just transactions.”

4. How Execution Drives Growth

Flawless execution is another differentiator in today’s marketplace. Coca-Cola used to track in-store execution with paper forms and hand-held devices. “That generated outputs that had to be analysed, which is time-consuming,” Hamilton said. “Now, using a smartphone or tablet,” she said, “our merchandisers can take a picture of the retail environment and get an instant assessment of execution using photo recognition."

Hamilton talked about Coca-Cola’s use of augmented reality and other leading-edge in-store innovations. “Ultimately these kinds of technologies let us bring our brands to life in a “faster and more relevant way.”

5. The Case for Optimism

Hamilton closed out her World Retail Congress remarks by making a potent and personal case for optimism. “I’m a shamelessly glass-half-full person,” she said. The consumer landscape won’t ever stop changing. What’s important, Hamilton argued, is to step back from the swirl and recognise the “amazing potential" out there – for Coke's customers, consumers, employees and stakeholders around the world.

“There aren’t that many industries that continually let you re-invent yourself and push the boundaries of creativity and capability,” she concluded.