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Shoptalk Meetup was announced less than two weeks ago and with more than 2,000 attendees from over 1,000 companies registered, it’s already the fall’s largest retail event. Attendance is capped, so you better get on the waitlist now.

I’ve said it before, and I’m saying it again, Anil Aggarwal, founder of Shoptalk, is a master disruptor. When he talks about connecting the retail ecosystem through industry events, he lives and speaks in terms of thousands (attendees) and millions (investment dollars). And those numbers have kept growing with each disruptive innovation he’s introduced since the inaugural Shoptalk in 2016. Now, he’s launching the biggest U.S. retail event of the fall — and it’s going to take place online. There won’t be a traditional agenda or any speakers. Instead, he’s focused on facilitating over 20,000 meetings, ensuring the retail industry doesn’t miss out on a critical time to partner and innovate, despite the limitations on in-person gatherings resulting from Covid-19.

The Past as Prelude

Let me give a brief historical perspective. In January 2016, I met Aggarwal for the first time over coffee at the NRF Big Show where he introduced his vision for Shoptalk. He explained how the timing was right at the crossroads of the technology revolution; how ecommerce and changing consumer behavior were major paradigm shifts; and how the entrepreneurial explosion of tech-driven startups was going to forever change the retail landscape. He envisioned Shoptalk as the first authentic retail communication and education platform, attracting thousands of professionals to connect, exchange ideas, create synergies and learn. And he said he would invest millions to make it happen. “The industry needs this,” he said five years ago.

Shoptalk Meetup was announced less than two weeks ago and with more than 2,000 attendees from over 1,000 companies registered, it’s already the fall’s largest retail event. Attendance is capped, so you better get on the waitlist now.

I wrote that I was skeptical, even though I was intrigued by the way he framed his vision. I said at the time, “Anil, the industry doesn’t need another conference.” Furthermore, I thought that his experience in retail was peripheral at best, despite the fact that he had successfully launched Money2020, had sold his tech company to Google, and was a partner at a leading venture capital firm. It turned out that it was his background in tech and financial services that was the catalyst needed to help transform how we think about and experience the business of retail.

I now admit that my comment “…the industry doesn’t need another conference” has been my “eat crow” moment each and every time Shoptalk raised its own bar for four successive events, compelling thousands and thousands more industry executives to attend.

The Future of Retail Events

Aggarwal believes the future of retail events will be developed on two innovation curves: (1) an incremental innovation curve, and (2) a disruptive innovation curve. According to Aggarwal, others have focused on the first curve, while he’s focused on the second. “As in-person events were canceled, pretty much everyone took some form of their offline event and simply put it online,” Aggarwal told me. “That’s like using the store model as an exact template for your ecommerce strategy–and having your store team implement it. It doesn’t work.” Aggarwal believes events will inevitably become omnichannel but not based on this kind of incremental innovation.

Enter Disruptive Change and Shoptalk Meetup

Shoptalk’s Meetup is not another webinar or online conference. Aggarwal said: “There’s no shortage of online content today, but there are few opportunities for people in the retail industry to expand their networks in a meaningful way right now. So, rather than focusing on speakers and interviews, Shoptalk’s Meetup is a productive way to connect with the people you know and meet the people you don’t know in a friendly and open digital environment. Our objective is to empower the retail industry with three months’ worth of meetings in just three half-days.”

“We announced Shoptalk’s Meetup less than two weeks ago and based on the number of people already signed up, it’s now the 5th largest U.S. retail event. As additional attendees register, we expect to be the 4th largest by the time the event takes place in October,” Aggarwal says. “With the exception of some very basic off-the-shelf matchmaking, attendees at other virtual events are passive observers, but with our Meetup event, we allow them to successfully conduct business.”

Aggarwal explains the genesis of Shoptalk’s upcoming Meetup: “I sat down with a blank sheet of paper at the beginning of the pandemic, and asked myself, ‘what does a digitally native retail event look like?'”

The result was an entirely new approach to an online retail event that allows thousands of attendees from retailers and brands, tech companies, startups, investors, media outlets and more to connect with each other for any number of reasons. The reasons are endless, but here’s a taste: (1) retailers can meet with each other, source solutions specific to Covid-19’s impact on their businesses and engage with startups on beta programs, (2) startups can meet investors and accelerators for fundraising or reach out to potential acquirers for M&A, and (3) companies can make announcements, launch new products and release new research for attending media and analysts to cover. If there’s a reason to meet with someone in the “real world,” you can do it online with Shoptalk Meetup.

Based on Aggarwal’s deep understanding of the intersection of technology, retail and events, his 30-person team of genius engineers has developed the software and systems to make this all a reality. Each attendee can connect in up to 36 15-minute virtual meetings during three half-days. They can also join 55-minute group discussions. Without going into the agonizing detail which Aggarwal shared with me, the Meetup has five basic steps:

  1. Everyone completes their profile specific to the things that are important to them,
  2. Everyone gets to see everyone else’s profile — they can filter, search and see the specific things that might interest them (like new product launches and Covid-19 related solutions), and request meetings by providing a reason,
  3. Everyone gets to see who they matched with, opt-in to inbound requests they receive and prioritize,
  4. Everyone engages in their meetings out of more than 20,000 that’ll take place, and
  5. Everyone gets email introductions for high priority matches that Shoptalk wasn’t able to schedule as meetings because of time constraints.

The event is scheduled for Tuesday-Thursday, October 20-22 from 12:15 PM to 4:30 PM EDT. The schedule of half-days lets attendees stay on top of their other work. More than 2,000 people have already signed up from more than 1,000 companies. Aggarwal had planned to cap attendance for the initial event at 2,500 to help deliver a more personalized approach. “We’re open to revisiting the number of attendees — it’s a balance of solving the network effect and delivering a quality experience,” he tells me when asked how they’ll decide if they’ll let additional people join. For now, there’s a waitlist at www.retailmeetup.com.

The Digital Model

Shoptalk was unique in retail events in using technology to improve the offline experience, and Shoptalk’s online Meetup event is an obvious extension of their approach to leveraging technology to improve the event experience.

Aggarwal adds, “The events industry is 10 years behind the retail industry in terms of digitization. Future events will be omnichannel, just like retail.” He envisions the future of events as a series of digital meetups and in-person experiences. And by the way, the physical Shoptalk event is next scheduled for March 21-24, 2021 at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

And, I’ve learned that when Anil Aggarwal speaks, we should all listen.