The 5th annual International Start-up Festival took place from July 15 - 18th at Le Jardins des Écluses here in Montreal. The event promised "a unique blend of deep content, inspiring stories, unbeatable networking, and unmistakable festival vibe". We spent some time soaking up the sunshine, taking in the expert talks and looking for the latest tech and trends in fashion.

International Startup Festival 2015 - in Montreal

On Thursday afternoon, we had the chance to sit in on the Future of Retail panel, which featured Harley Finkelstein (Shopify), Ethan Song (Frank & Oak), Camille Fournier (Rent the Runway) and Cathy Han (42 Technologies). Each panelist had some interesting thoughts on the current state of the retail landscape. Harley acted mostly as a moderator for the panel, asking questions and facilitating a dialog between the different panel members.

So What is the Future of Retail?

It was universally agreed that brick-and-motar stores aren't going away, but their role in the buying process is currently in flux. When asked how Frank & Oak is managing the expansion from online to traditional retailing, CEO Ethan Song pointed out that being digital first gave his company the advantage of opening stores in markets that they already knew they had a large customer base. Camille, whose Rent the Runway brand has recently opened five locations, added that having a tangible environment for customers to visit allows her company to provide a valuable styling experience. Customers still want to touch and feel the products before making their purchase.

As the conversation shifted towards operations, Ethan shared his view that "everyone is doing the same things" in fashion retail. "Access to products is no longer an issue," as customers can purchase most brands through different stores and online channels. This makes the ability to over deliver on customer expectations and optimizing business process more important than ever.

The Future of Retail Panelists at International Start Up Fest in Montreal


In terms of business optimization, Cathy (who's company specializes in retail business intelligence) said she was consistently surprised to find their clients often couldn't answer basic questions about the sales figures of their core products. As the competition increases, she suggested that retailers who know their numbers and can optimize their production to meet demand will have the biggest advantage in the marketplace.

Harvey then brought forward some of the issues faced by big brands in the past months, asking the panelists where we could expect to see growth in the coming years. Overall, it was agreed that the market has never been better for small and medium sized enterprises. A company can find, market and sell to a specific customer easier than ever before. However, this segmentation is making it more difficult to create a billion dollar brand with broad appeal.

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