ai retail tech pr

AI and Retail Tech PR: Three Things to Remember

It’s hard to believe that today’s AI revolution started only 18+ months ago. That’s when OpenAI publicly released ChatGPT, forever changing the technology landscape by fueling an exponential wave of technology innovation.

We’ve seen firsthand the impact of AI in retail technology. NRF 2024 could easily have been rebranded “NRFAI,” as AI was everywhere and anywhere. But now there’s been a shift in emphasis about AI, which is moving from the “what” of AI (what it is and how it works) to the “so what” (what does it mean for your business?).

In terms of AI’s impact on the retail industry, our friends at IHL Group, a retail research and advisory firm, have done an excellent job of quantifying the financial benefits.

IHL has estimated that the top 200 publicly traded North American retailers and restaurants could see $1.5 trillion in additional financial impact from AI through 2029, with Amazon and Walmart alone accounting for more than a third of that. The firm’s “Retail AI Readiness Index” noted that nearly half of that will be created by generative AI.

Those are mind-boggling numbers. However, the “big picture” view of AI in retail is only part of the story. What’s needed now are stories about the real-world results and ROI of AI implementations. As IHL president/chief AI officer Greg Buzek says, “How are retailers really using it, with case study examples?”

That’s where we come in, as PR storytellers. However, given the unprecedented hype around AI, it’s important to keep these three things in mind when developing your PR strategy.

1. Skip the PR-speak about AI

Eliminate the buzzwords when you’re pitching editors. Most of them are burned out from AI fatigue, as this recent article from Fast Company makes clear. It’s worth quoting at length here:

“We are officially reaching the phase in the tech cycle where a new technology (in this case, artificial intelligence) goes from truly wondrous to truly annoying. Every organization now seems to be using it—or the idea of it—to ride the hype wave to achieve attention, clicks, or, you know, just a few more customers. And it’s starting to annoy the hell out of me.

“I can’t tell you how many pitches I receive from some poor comms person who is forced to proudly exclaim in the first sentence ‘We’re an AI-first company.’ Yeah, you and everyone else since, oh, early 2023.”

As the writer goes on to say, all the noise around AI can obscure the innovative work being done by the technology companies that are truly at the forefront of AI. These are the stories that the industry needs to hear.

2. Remember the media needs real-world AI stories

Exciting AI stories are quickly emerging. The industry’s largest retailers, grocers, restaurants and brands are actively sharing their own AI successes.

A recent Chain Store Age article detailed AI innovations in personalization from Best Buy (personalized mobile promotions), Reebok (personalized products) and leading regional grocers that have implemented personalized discounts, including Northeast Grocery, which uses an AI analytics, personalization and customer engagement platform from our client Birdzi.

While the largest tech vendors may dominate the headlines, some of the most innovative AI solutions for retailers are from earlier-stage technology companies.

These technology vendors have built AI platforms and solutions from the ground up (our client Digital Wave Technology is a prime example), rather than simply adding generative AI solutions to a legacy product portfolio.

The work these companies are doing is truly newsworthy.

3. Keep PR front and center in your marketing strategy

A recent Digiday article detailed how marketers are shifting the budgets away from pure performance marketing to focus more on brand building, including earned media. That’s where PR comes in.

There are unique challenges for PR agencies in telling AI stories. Some retailers and brands may be reluctant to disclose how they’re using AI solutions, as they consider it a competitive advantage. There’s an incredible amount of noise to cut through. Editors are bombarded with AI pitches, as we’ve noted earlier.

Yet there are plenty of opportunities to get your message across: thought leadership content, bylined articles, media pitching, recognition through industry awards, industry events and more, always amplifying your earned media wins through social media and marketing.

These are among the many PR tactics the Ketner Group team uses to get the word out for our clients, and it works.

AI innovation is moving at an extraordinary pace, creating plenty of opportunities for creative storytelling that explains the real benefits of AI. Make sure your company is part of those stories!

pr ageny readiness checklist takeaways

Introducing “The PR Agency Readiness Checklist” With Three Important Takeaways

As a PR agency that specializes in helping retail technology companies gain exposure in their areas of expertise and expand their share of market, we know what it takes to set our clients up for long-term success.

The reality is that, when done right, a solid PR program can provide major value to tech companies. Strategic communications can:

  • Increase recognition of a company’s brand and thought leadership.
  • Provide validation among peers, media and analysts.
  • Generate sales leads and support long sales cycles.

But how does a tech company know if they are truly ready to invest in a PR program?

The answer is in our latest eBook: “The PR Agency Readiness Checklist.

Whether you are an early-stage innovator or an established solutions provider, this new eBook provides the five key steps we recommend you take in preparation for embarking on a true PR partnership.

In celebration of its launch, we’re sharing three takeaways from the eBook.

1. Identifying marketing goals is of the upmost priority

If you take away anything from this blog (or eBook!), remember this:

“Without a marketing plan, you don’t know where PR fits in. Without a marketing team, you can’t properly direct a PR agency.”

Before even considering a PR strategy, retail tech companies must first establish their overall goals, such as lead generation, acquisition or brand awareness. Then, they must develop a marketing plan incorporating the various strategies and tactics to achieve those goals.

2. Getting the green light from the executive team is essential

We get asked all the time what makes a great agency/client partnership. Of course, things like two-way collaboration and transparency are important, but executive support is always at the top of our list.

In our experience, c-level executives have a variety of reasons why they may not be excited to bring in outside PR support. Some have been previously burned by a PR relationship, others are just not comfortable with dedicating budget to PR.

Our 20+ years working with retail technology companies have taught us that without executive buy-in, a PR program will flounder before it has even begun.

As key spokespeople and subject matter experts, a company CEO and other executives have a wealth of knowledge and insights they can bring to the PR table. By giving a PR partner access to the executive team, an agency team can provide a more proactive and strategic approach to PR success, rather than reactionary responses.

3. Finding the right PR agency inspires a true partnership

The PR agency/solution provider partnership is just like any relationship – you must find the right match. It’s essential to align your values and preferences.

When evaluating PR agencies, retail tech companies should consider qualities like skillset, agency location and size, and of course expertise.

At Ketner Group, we are 100% specialized in the retail technology ecosystem, working with companies in sectors such as supply chain, ecommerce, payment solutions, merchandising and in-store experiences.

Partnering with a specialist agency that focuses on one category is often beneficial to organizations, as specialty agencies have developed long-term relationships with influencers, the media and industry analysts in their space.

Keeping “The PR Agency Readiness Checklist” handy

Whether you are just starting a search for a PR agency or thinking about bringing on agency support next year, we encourage you to keep this checklist handy (and download here!).

Still have questions on PR agency support?

We’d love to keep the conversation going! Contact us today to find out how we can help support your marketing and communications goals.

Why PR Meetings Should Be Part of Your Trade Show Strategy

Trade shows are one of the best opportunities for retail tech vendors to meet with clients and prospects face to face.

Whether it’s an initial meeting or a chance to move a prospective client further along the sales pipeline, in-person meetings are invaluable. And since key events such as NRF, Shoptalk, FMI Midwinter and others happen early in the year, the success of these meetings can help set the tone for the rest of the year.

However, there is another key audience to consider for trade shows: the media who attend these events. As a PR agency, we work closely with editors and reporters to cover client news and industry perspectives, and what they write helps influence our clients’ prospective customers. As a result, we always look for good opportunities for our clients to meet with media during conferences and trade shows.

Tech companies are often reluctant to participate in press meetings during busy trade shows; after all, their #1 objective is sales (and rightfully so!). However, here are four reasons why media briefings should be part of your trade show strategy.

1. Amplify your news

PR-savvy companies recognize that industry events are prime opportunities to make news announcements. As we’ve shared before, press releases announcing customer wins, new products or original research can create buzz, help drive booth traffic, and lead to media coverage during and after the show.

Meeting with editors and reporters to brief them on your news will greatly increase the opportunities to be included in influential articles. And if you don’t have news to share, use press meetings as an opportunity to share your viewpoints on industry trends, conduct background briefings for future stories and build relationships.

2. Influence the influencers

When you meet with editors and reporters, it’s an opportunity to help “influence the influencers.” The earned media that’s generated through PR provides a valuable source of reliable information for your prospective customers. In an age of mass disinformation, credible, trusted news media are more important than ever.

We’ve seen many instances where articles in leading publications have resulted in new prospects and customer wins for our clients; press meetings at trade shows will help support your sales efforts.

Don’t overlook analysts when planning your meetings at industry events. Analysts issue highly influential reports on technology vendors, and it’s important for them to know about your company in order to understand the vendor landscape.

Analysts are important players in major sales cycles; retailers seek out analysts when deciding on technology direction and vendor short lists, and analysts are frequently consulted when companies are considering mergers and acquisitions.

3. Discover new opportunities

Not surprisingly, most of our communications with editors take place via email and occasional phone calls or Zoom meetings; the journalists we work with are scattered throughout North America and worldwide. Given the nature of our virtual world, it’s hard to overstate the importance of in-person meetings; they present a rare opportunity to make an in-person connection.

Even a short meeting at a trade show can provide an opportunity to learn about new stories a reporter is working on, and the topics and trends they’re especially interested in. You can learn about upcoming industry analyst reports, too, and arrange in-depth analyst briefings after the event.

In-person meetings are opportunities for you to share your opinions on industry trends, challenges and opportunities. Technology vendors are an important source of information about the direction of our industry, and trade show meetings provide a chance to provide your perspectives.

4. Develop long-term, valuable relationships

As editors get to know technology vendors, good things start to happen. They can begin to understand your company’s area of expertise and recognize you as a valuable resource for future articles – which in turn leads to more press coverage. As a PR agency, we see it happen continually, when we get inbound media requests to speak to one of our clients for a story.

In-person meetings also nurture the “relationship” aspect of public relations. We get to know one another as unique individuals, which leads to better relationships and in many cases, lifelong friendships. And that makes business–and life –a lot more enjoyable and rewarding.

Jamie Grill-Goodman

Talking Retail Trends, Journalism and Children’s Books with Jamie Grill-Goodman

Well, this was a fun one, folks! I recently had the chance to visit with the talented Jamie Grill-Goodman, editor in chief of RIS News. As editor in chief, Jamie is among the ranks of amazing journalists and retail tech thought-leaders who previously held this post, such as Joe Skorupa and the late Dennis Eskow. She has been with the RIS News brand since 2015. 

In this fun chat, we talked about her journey to the publication, why she likes writing about in-store technologies and her love of the library and children’s books.

Following are some excerpts from our conversation. Enjoy!

Tell me about your path to retail tech journalism.

I have a degree in journalism and creative writing from Rowan University. The truth is that I’ve always loved writing! Long before I began to focus on retail tech, I started at a consumer magazine called Unique Homes and then transitioned into children’s book publishing. 

In 2009, I started working for Private Label Magazine, which was my entry into the retail consumer goods field. Phil Russo, the publisher, became a great mentor during my tenure at the publication and taught me so much about the consumer goods space. I went on to work for another private label magazine for a few years but, in 2015, I made the move to Consumer Goods Technology and RIS News.

What is it about the retail tech industry that you enjoy so much?

When I had my initial interviews with Private Label Magazine, they asked me if I liked to shop in stores. I’d always wanted to be a travel writer, so of course I said yes! Working for that publication gave me a unique opportunity to do a ton of store visits, so I really started paying attention to the experience shoppers were having in the store

The physical store has always interested me, especially when it comes to localization or personalization efforts. The store itself is almost its own travel experience, especially destination shops. 

I love retail tech because it’s always changing. It never gets boring. For context, when I started at RIS News eight years ago, my kids were babies and there was no curbside pickup! And now, 63% of retailers that we (RIS News) surveyed are up to date with curbside pickup. It’s just so crazy how fast the industry adopts things and how fast the technology itself evolves.

As a retail journalist, what do you use as inspiration for writing your stories, and how do you stay up to date on the latest trends?

I am always looking at the wires for breaking news, and of course I have a lot of Google alerts set to monitor key terms or trends. I also like to read other publications. But so much of my inspiration comes from just talking to a lot of people! We talk to retail tech vendors to get first-hand accounts of what their retail end users are seeing.

We also have an editorial council which meets a few times a year. They’re great at telling us about the things keeping them up at night and helping us direct our coverage. I also learn so much through our people profiles and hear more about what they are working on, what’s trending in the industry and what changes are really happening in retail tech.

I have to say, also, that women in retail tech always inspire me. Stay tuned for our 8thannual women in retail tech feature later this year.

What do you look for when deciding on which story or trend you want to write? What gets you pumped to write a particular story?

In general, it’s always better if we can talk to the people who have been working with the technology. We love doing case studies with retailers, especially if we can profile someone who’s had the technology in place for six months.

This allows us to go deeper and find out how the technology was implemented, what issues they have had, how they overcame them and what could be done differently next time. Our readers really want to hear the realities of these technology implementations, even if those are not so picture-perfect.

What retail technologies are you most excited about or interested in these days?

I think you can’t ignore Gen AI, but I’m most interested in it for both retail technology and how it’s going to impact journalism. I think it’s interesting to see what use cases there are for AI and how people are dipping their toes into this technology.

For in-store tech, I love anything that the customer is using! I’m really interested in smart carts, smart mirrors, sample vending machines and new instant checkout options – basically anything where the customers are touching the technology. I always get excited and want to learn more about where these in-store technologies are being implemented. 

At industry events, how do you like to divvy up your time? What are the main priorities for you at these events? 

Certainly, NRF is the big one for us, and we put out a huge report on it every year.  For NRF, it is very formulaic in terms of how our editorial team plans for the event. Our schedules are mapped out to the minute every year. We meet several times before the show to assign sessions and floor coverage. We then use the extra time that we have left to meet with vendors and talk to them about what they’re seeing.

For other industry events, we generally try to identify the sessions that we think are the most interesting, and as we have time, will set up meetings with vendors.

We do have our own events, such as Analytics Unite in May, but it is the same formula of having every minute accounted for during those shows. The best conversations come during the networking time when we’re not covering sessions.  

I would say when it comes to meeting with retail tech vendors at industry events, the biggest thing we want to hear is if you are announcing something new at the show. That will get our attention to want to meet and find out more about the announcement, especially if it is a partnership with a retailer. 

At Ketner Group, we are in the business of PR and working with journalists like yourself. Can you share how PR professionals can provide you with the info you need to generate stories?

The biggest thing for me is just know that my audience is retail tech executives, and making sure that the pitches or announcements have some kind of tech associated with it.

The best pitches I get are when the person sending it to me knows my audience and knows what we do. It’s always helpful to pull out a few bullet points to tell me what exactly about the pitch is going to resonate with my audience.

I receive an overwhelming number of emails, over a hundred every day, so concise pitches help me to quickly determine if it is important for me to read. In short, I need to be able to see that the pitch or news is tech related and if there is a retailer involved.

When it comes to pitches that we may not use right away but identify that it may be a good resource for the future, we will share it with the other editors so that everyone has access to it when the time is right. As an editorial team, we are constantly sharing things that look interesting and then work to boil down what we’re really going to cover. 

What are you reading right now?

My kids are 7 and 9, so most of the books I’m reading these days are children’s books! The best one I’ve read most recently was “Maddie’s Fridge” (you can check it out on Storyline Online). But I do still love the library. I love taking out a stack of books and hoping that I’ll get to them!

The library route is great because you have a deadline, and I do well with deadlines! I recently checked out “Beach Read” by Emily Henry and “National Dish” by Anya von Bremzen. 

press release drive demand

Three Tips for Drafting a Press Release That Drives Demand

When a tech company has an exciting announcement to share, many turn to press releases without a second thought.

After all, press releases are an effective way to share news, reach a wide variety of audiences and increase SEO. But the reality is, the impact of a press release can vary widely based on how engaging and newsworthy the announcement is.

At Ketner Group, it’s an understatement to say we draft a lot of press releases. And we’ve learned a thing or two (or three) about making this promotional tool as effective as possible.

Let’s discuss three best practices for developing press releases that earn a reader’s attention and drive technology company demand.

1. Don’t get ahead of yourself with your news

Before you start drafting a press release, take a step back and ensure that the announcement is newsworthy and engaging to the target audience. Issuing a press release over the wire can be expensive, so this channel should be used sparingly.

In fact, we don’t always recommend that a press release is distributed over the wire. If you’re announcing a recent award win that was sponsored by a publication, for example, this release should be distributed via web only, as other media outlets likely won’t cover it.

At Ketner Group, we determine whether to draft a press release (and identify what details to include if we do) by first creating a questionnaire. This document encourages our clients to consider a few key criterion, including:

  • What do you want this press release to accomplish? The answer might be to earn media coverage, increase SEO or establish new leads.
  • Who is your target audience for this release? For our technology clients, this can be retailers generally, or more specifically it could be chief technology officers at large specialty retailers.
  • Are there any data points that we can use to substantiate the claims or relevancy? This can include company research, customer success metrics and more.
  • Do you have external validation? We always recommend referencing relevant analyst reports or quoting an outside source like a customer or a partner.

After this exercise, sometimes we conclude that there isn’t enough news for a press release. For example, if a technology provider is ready to announce a new solution, but they don’t have a customer or success metrics to point to, the release may not resonate with retail technology media.

If that’s the case, that’s ok! It doesn’t mean the news isn’t exciting. It just means that the best channel for sharing the news might be a pitch or a company blog instead of a press release.

Asking tough questions early in the process saves our clients time and money while ensuring the news is told effectively.  

2. Every section of the press release matters

Press releases are formulaic in nature. They always contain a headline, a subhead, a dateline, a quote, a boilerplate and contact information. But despite this, well-written and thoughtful press releases can still stand out from the noise.

First, the headline must intrigue the viewer to continue reading. The headline should preview the most exciting part of the news. More details should be featured in the subheading to prove the validity of the headline.

Next, the body of the release should be engaging and tell a full story. We’ve found that a company quote is a great way to highlight the most important parts of the story, while using the tone of the appropriate subject matter expert. The quote should be substantive. The best releases avoid using superfluous phrases like “we’re excited to announce XYZ,” opting instead to focus on the key messaging.

Finally, the release must end with a compelling call to action. Viewers who read through the press release are likely invested in the story you’re telling, meaning they may want to continue learning more or asking questions. Directing these viewers towards a clear next step can establish important connections for a business.

3. Word choice is everything in a press release

The messaging in a press release must be precise and impactful. Writers must get to the point quickly while using the right language to showcase how unique this story is and why it matters.

When it comes to a press release detailing a new product announcement, make sure to mirror the product language found on the website and sales sheets. This ensures that brand identity remains cohesive across touch points.

What’s more, releases are great for search engine optimization. This means that every release should incorporate key words that the business wants to associate with its brand.

Press releases should also avoid jargon, making sure everyone within the target audience can understand the news.

So, you want to distribute a press release? Let’s talk.

The press release is a tried-and-true promotional tool for a reason, but these best practices can enhance the impact.

Are you looking to take your announcements to the next level? At Ketner Group, we take pride in the entire process from the initial release draft to the final distribution. After that, we support our clients as they create a well-rounded strategic communications program that attracts attention from key stakeholders through a variety of channels.

We’d love to work with you to make the most of every press release. Contact us today to learn more.

2024 retail tech trends

AI Upended the Retail Tech Landscape in 2023. What’s Ahead in 2024?

AI’s breakthrough year in 2023 was the retail technology equivalent of Taylor Swift’s Eras tour – a once-in-a-generation event that changes everything.

If Swiftmania is the biggest musical sensation since The Beatles, then Generative AI is easily the most revolutionary technology since the iPhone. AI is quickly becoming a pervasive technology, dividing the timeline for tech advancements into “before” and “after” AI.

AI will dominate the 2024 retail tech industry

Dan Berthiume, senior technology editor of Chain Store Age, summed up the impact of AI in a recent Q&A with Ketner Group: “AI is the most dominant technology I’ve seen in the last 15 years. It will be an important component in every technology system and every part of the enterprise, and like mobile and omnichannel commerce, it will be a constant feature (not just in retail) and will just be assumed.”

It’s a safe bet that AI will be the #1 tech topic at next week’s NRF 2024. And while AI will continue to dominate the retail technology landscape 2024, the conversations have shifted from the technology itself to all the different ways that AI impacts retail: from product creation to assortment planning, forecasting, supply chain management, pricing, PIM, marketing and every other area of the complex retail ecosystem.

Along the way, we’re also starting to see some data emerge about the financial impact of AI in retail. Last month our friends at IHL Group released their Retail AI Readiness Profiles that measure the potential financial impact that AI can bring to retailers and restaurant chains.

As always, IHL quantified its findings with an impressive real-world analogy: according to IHL, Macy’s alone could see $7.5B in business gains from AI in the next 5 years.

What are some of the AI-driven tech trends to watch for in 2024? Here are just a few of the things we’re tracking; they’re just a small sampling of all the ways that AI will impact retail in 2024.

Personalization continues to get more personal

Retail is moving from personalization to hyper-personalization, delivering shopping experiences that “dazzle each shopper at scale,” according to Adobe’s annual research report, 2023 Digital Trends: Retail in Focus.

Currently, only 16% of retailers can personalize experiences based on customers’ interaction history, while only 9% provide personalized experiences based on shopper intent. There’s massive room for improvement, and AI is the critical technology that makes this possible.

AI helps combat retail’s labor shortage

Employee turnover in retail reached record highs in 2023, but a combination of AI, robotics, computer vision and other technologies can help retailers offset the impact of labor shortages by automating routine tasks.

For example, autonomous inventory robots can provide 24×7 inventory updates and help retailers keep their shelves stocked, reducing out-of-stocks and increasing sales.

Retail supply chains become more resilient with AI

One of the biggest technology lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic was that retail supply chains weren’t resilient enough to handle sudden supply chain shocks, from factory closings to rapid changes in consumer demand and the need for new fulfillment models.

AI is quickly helping change that. A recent Business Insider article notes, “Robots are helping fulfillment-center workers sort through large volumes of products, artificial intelligence is predicting the most energy-efficient delivery routes, and modern data-collection and analysis methods are helping retail stores optimize stock management. Retail-technology experts say that without these innovations, supply chains would struggle to function in the face of fast-changing customer expectations and turbulent economic times.”

Retail tech spending will increase in 2024

The examples above are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to AI innovation in retail. And given the furious pace of AI innovation, it’s no surprise that Gartner predicts that 57% of retailers plan to spend more on software in 2024.

AI will certainly be a major driver in this trend, especially as retailers look at AI’s tremendous financial upside (IHL estimates that the overall economic impact for the top 212 North American retailers and restaurants will be $1.5 trillion for the next 5 years).

Ketner Group is fortunate to have a number of clients that are on the forefront of AI innovation, and we’re looking forward to exciting press announcements at next week’s NRF Show.

2024 will be a pivotal year for AI in retail technology, and Ketner Group clients will be a big part of the story!

Looking to make an impact with PR in 2024? The Ketner Group team would love to connect! Download our Retail Tech PR Handbook to learn more about our best-practice approach to retail technology PR or schedule some time with us!

interview dan, chain store age

Getting the Inside Scoop With Dan Berthiaume, Retail Expert and Senior Editor of Technology

I think we can all agree that the retail tech industry is extremely lucky to have so many wonderful experts and content creators!

You may recall that I recently sat down with our friend Barbara Thau to get her take on industry trends and tips for PR folks.

For my next chat, I sat down with Dan Berthiaume, senior editor of technology for Chain Store Age to discuss all things AI, why he loves retail tech and his love of music.

Following are some excerpts from our conversation. Enjoy!

Tell me about your path to retail tech journalism.

I was an English major in college and knew that I wanted to do something that involved writing. I got my start as a small town reporter, working for a few weekly newspapers in the Metro West Boston area.

After a few years I felt like I’d taken small town journalism as far as I could, so I started looking around and found Retail Systems Alert Group, which was one of the biggest retail tech publishers at the time.

I joined as associate editor for the newsletter, and, as it turns out, joined at an interesting time for the retail industry! We were literally writing articles about why you should sell products online. At that point, the big “buzzword” was cannibalization – specifically around the concern that a sale made online was a sale taken away from a store.

In those years, I rose through the ranks and saw an enormous amount of change: the early days and struggles of Amazon, ecommerce turning into omni-channel, the rise of RFID, and of course mobile commerce.

After Retail Systems Alert Group closed its doors, I spent time as a freelance editor before joining Chain Store Age 2013 as their technology editor. I left Chain Store Age for a few years to work for a retail industry software company but rejoined the team at Chain Store Age again in 2019.

What is it about this industry that you enjoy so much?

Well to start, it is a very exciting place to be! To outsiders, you might think retail is just putting stuff on the “shelf” and selling it. But there is so much that goes into selling products.

There are things like merchandising, marketing, and managing the supply chain that come into play. It’s such a complicated process for what seems like a simple thing to the customer.

As well, there’s so much innovation in retail, and I think a lot of the top tech people, who wouldn’t have thought about working for a retailer 20 years ago, are now working in retail. It’s impressive how far the industry has come.

And it’s not just general retail that is innovating, the CPG side of things has really come into its own, too. When I started out in the industry in the late 90s, if a CPG company had their own promotion, they wouldn’t even tell the retailer about it. The backend communication just wasn’t there.

Now, technology is enabling real-time communication between all the partners in the extended supply chain. Overall collaboration has improved, thanks in large part to technology.

As retail journalist, what do you use an inspiration for writing your stories? How do you stay up-to-date on latest trends?

I’m very active online, so I’m always checking the news wires, different retailer websites and the leading business news sites. I also receive a ton of pitches from PR professionals like you all at Ketner Group!

Of course, industry events like NRF give me a good sense of what’s happening and what the big trends are. I also conduct a lot of Q&As with industry experts and retail practitioners, which I love doing.

The thing that is most important to me is to focus on writing content that I find interesting and exciting, because it is my hope that the reader will also find it equally as interesting!

I also try to take inspiration from my past writing as a sportswriter as well as my published short fiction writing to make my retail tech articles as lively as possible.

What retail technologies are you most excited about right now?

Well clearly AI has stolen the show!

The last time I saw a technology so overwhelmingly dominate the landscape was probably the emergence of smartphones. And before that, in the early 2000s, when suddenly people realized e-commerce was a necessary component to their retail strategy.

AI is the most dominant technology I’ve seen in the last 15 years. It will be an important component in every technology system and every part of the enterprise, and like mobile and omnichannel commerce, it will be a constant feature (not just in retail) and will just be assumed. 

Aside from AI, we are still waiting to see what is going to happen with blockchain and the Metaverse. We are also still waiting to see how social media will develop as a retail channel, and how AI will affect that. As I just said, AI is inevitable and is bound to play a major role in how retailers promote and sell products on their social media platforms.

Looking into your crystal ball – what do you think retailers will be focused on in 2024?

I think that the global supply chain is still heavily disrupted from the lingering effects of the pandemic, an increase in severe weather events and sadly from the instability in different parts of the world.

AI can provide a lot of assistance in the backend when it comes to trying to predict what are inherently unpredictable events. With machine learning, retailers can take data from all these disruptive events and have a better sense of how to react both in the moment and longer term. Additionally, they can use AI and machine learning to get a better sense of how to find alternate routes in the supply chain.  

I also think that retailers will be applying AI to help with labor issues, as there are just not enough associates in the store. What’s interesting is that retailers can use AI not simply to save money on labor or to reallocate labor, but literally to fill in the gaps where their employees just aren’t there. This could include implementing technology like inventory tracking robots and RFID-based product tracking.

What are you reading or listening to right now?

The last book I read was not a retail tech book at all! It’s a memoir called, “Searching for the Sound” by Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead.

If I read off hours, I sometimes like to read something that just reflects my personal interest. I love The Grateful Dead and I love music in general. I have been a freelance music journalist, so I’m always interested in the stories, lifestyles and the “behind the scenes” of musicians.

Because I read so much about retail tech during the day, I often like to read something different at night!

barbara thau co-

Talking Shop with Barbara Thau, Retail Influencer and Editorial Director of Features

In a fast-paced news world, journalists continue to rely on reputable and interesting story resources from PR professionals. That is why it is important to know and understand as much about the media we are working with as we can.

Over the years, the Ketner Group team has been lucky to work with so many talented media professionals in the retail and consumer technology space.

One of those is Barbara Thau, editorial director of features for CO— by U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Barbara has more than 25 years of experience covering the retail and consumer industries and is consistently named as a top retail influencer.

I recently had a chance to visit with Barbara about her take on the latest retail trends, how she selects her stories and her tips for PR professionals.

Following are some excerpts from our conversation. Enjoy!

Tell me about your path to retail and consumer journalism. What is it about these industries that you enjoy so much?

To be honest, I stumbled into the world of retail and consumer journalism.

I answered an ad in the New York Times for a research assistant for a publication called Housewares Executive. I had been writing prior to the job, but it gave me the opportunity to cover the big brands and retailers in the housewares industry. As well, it was an introduction to the world of trade publication reporting, which was so interesting to me!  I really enjoyed covering business from the consumer economy standpoint.

Years later I realized that my boss and the publisher there, Gerry Vander Schauw, was a key mentor to me: His keen, no-marketing-spin-allowed expertise on the retail industry was from both the retail and supplier perspectives. Absorbing that foundation of knowledge starting out covering retail proved invaluable to me. He was super tough, but he also believed in me.

Retail is so fascinating because it’s not just about the store and the products, but it’s about how we live, how we shop, how we work, how we think, and all the things that play into that. I like how retail is at the intersection of beauty, fashion, consumer electronics, hospitality, and even mental health.

Retail is a business that is rich and ever-changing. There’s always the through line between the consumer and the larger macro, socio-economic trends. What’s not to love about it?

As a retail journalist, what do you use an inspiration for writing your stories and how do you stay up-to-date on the latest trends?

Even though I’m the editorial director of features at CO—, I still write as often as I can. In terms of inspiration, conversations with people in the industry is at the top of my list. There’s nothing that can replace it. I make a point to go to industry conferences to meet with people and attend sessions to get the information I need on the larger business trends.

Of course, I read a ton, too. A few of the sources that stand out to me include CB Insights and eMarketer. As well, I spend a lot of time reading the old school trade publications and newsletters such as Women’s Wear Daily and the Industry Dive publications, and top business publications like the Wall Street Journal. 

I also like to spend time with companies before we even talk about doing a story. I like to ask what’s top of mind for them these days, what’s being over-reported and what’s keeping them up at night.

There is so much power in questions and these conversations often give me inspiration for future stories.

I know you write, assign and edit a lot of articles focused on retail executives – what do you look for when deciding on who to spotlight for these pieces?

At CO—, our sweet spot for the feature coverage are the startups that are scaling meaningfully and making an impact in the market, as well as the legacy Fortune 500 companies. We are always looking to cover the disruptors and the disrupted.

For example, we recently covered Sharon Chuter, the founder of UOMA Beauty. Sharon has made a quietly important move into the beauty space. As we reported it, “Chuter’s commitment, 20-hour workdays and a no-time-for-performative-diversity ethos” landed the startup as the most inclusive Black-owned beauty brand. UOMA is now on the shelves at Walmart, Ulta and Nordstrom.

I also look at the trends, and what companies are meaningfully changing shopping behavior. For example, there is a huge trend in the buy-now-pay-later space, so companies like Klarna, Afterpay and Affirm are interesting to me.

What I look for are the executives behind technology companies, brands and retailers who are really moving the needle.

What retail and/or consumer technologies are you most excited about or interested in these days?

I have to say that in terms of the tech that excites me, it is less so about the bells and whistles and more about the new platforms that democratize the playing field.

What we are seeing now is an overarching trend of emerging platforms, like Walmart Business and Google for Small Business that allow smaller companies to scale.

I am also excited about the potential for generative AI right now, especially for small retail and consumer businesses. It is going to allow them to use the technology to quickly and cost-effectively create content that is akin to what a large marketing team would do in bigger company.

And even for big retail brands, generative AI brings a new level of convenience to help with content creation for ad copy and more. It will be very interesting to see where the technology is going to go. There is obviously going to be some fascinating level of a playing field, but time will only tell.

Can you share how PR professionals like our team at Ketner Group can provide you the information you need to generate stories?

My answer is not going to sound very glamorous, but it is really all about the basics.

I appreciate when the PR person really knows their client’s business and knows how that specific company ties into bigger industry trends. I get a lot of generative AI pitches these days. It is clear which PR professionals understand our coverage and the “je ne sais quoi” of our publication and how this specific technology applies, and which ones that don’t.

I love when PR pitches clearly communicate their sweet spot and then match that up with a unique fact or forward-thinking insight. Pitches that include meaningless and glittering generalities don’t land very well.

I also can’t overly communicate the importance of couching pitches within the larger consumer or retail context of the landscape and why that trend is important. And I appreciate when I clearly understand what the return on investment is to the consumer or the retailer from a company’s strategy. To me, those are the best pitches. 

What are you reading right now?

I love that question!

I am reading a book called “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” by A. Scott Berg and I love it! It is focused on the renowned editor, Max Perkins, who shepherded the editorial growth of Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams and many more. He was the one that brought so many famous books to life. It is a wonderful time capsule into the world of editing.

I highly recommend it for PR professionals, too!

jeff ketner barbara walters

My Interview With Barbara Walters

The death of legendary broadcast journalist Barbara Walters in December marked the passing of one of the most influential newscasters in television history. Walters shattered the glass ceiling of a male-dominated world and inspired other high-profile women broadcasters who followed in her footsteps. She became famous for her in-depth, prime-time interviews with seemingly all the world’s most influential people: from world leaders as varied as Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro to celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Princess Diana.

Walters interviewed me, too—way back in 1965, when she was a reporter for the “Today” show. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was my first exposure to PR and journalism.

Let’s be clear; she didn’t interview me because I was a celebrity. In 1965, I was a 12-year-old kid wrapping up a two-year stay at the Sahuaro School—a boarding school in Tucson, Arizona for children with acute, untreatable asthma. The school was reserved for the “worst of the worst” asthmatic kids from across the country. It literally saved my life. It also introduced me to a kind, generous young journalist who treated an ordinary kid with the same respect and courtesy she eventually would afford presidents and kings.

Here’s how it happened. Mr. Johnson, the Sahuaro School’s PR director, called me into his office one day and told me the “Today Show” was visiting Tucson and wanted to do a segment on the school (something that I realized years later he had secured with a pitch, just like any other good PR person). “Ms. Walters” wanted to interview three residents of the school, and he thought I’d do a good job of representing the Sahuaro School. He asked me if I was willing to do it, and I said “yes” without really thinking about it. I was too young, of course, to realize that this was a big deal.

I don’t remember much about the interview, and I haven’t had any luck over the years trying to get a copy. However, I remember that Walters seemed genuinely interested in my story. She looked me in the eye when she asked questions. She was patient and unhurried. And she listened – just like any good journalist.

A year later, when I had returned home to Wichita Falls, Texas, Johnson wrote and asked me if I would write Ms. Walters a letter to let her know how I was doing. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the school was struggling financially, because they took children regardless of their parents’ ability to pay. Johnson was hoping for a follow-up segment that could help the school, knowing that PR could make a difference.

I dutifully wrote Walters to update her, wondering if she’d even remember me. I started my letter by writing, “I’m not sure if you remember me, but…” And to my surprise, when I received a letter back from her a few weeks later, she started it by saying something that I’ve never forgotten: “Of course I remember you!”

Sadly, that letter is long lost; I’ve looked for it many times, but to no avail. Sahuaro School ultimately closed. Walters went on to become a world-renowned journalist and celebrity in her own right. And I’ve enjoyed a long career as a writer and then a PR professional.

I’ve reflected about my interview many times since Walters’ death. She had a remarkable talent for getting people to open up, and she could always find the real story, the things that matter most.

That’s what PR people are charged with as well. PR is the art of storytelling—discovering the most important stories our clients have to tell and connecting those stories to the audiences that matter most.

As I learned from Barbara Walters, everyone has a story to tell. It’s up to both PR professionals and journalists to listen, treat people with respect and be faithful to their stories. It’s an honorable calling to be a storyteller, one that Walters exemplified as a journalist. And it’s one that I strive to live up to every day as a PR professional.

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How To Put the Relationship Back Into Public Relations

In my 30+ year career in public relations, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about relationships. After all, “relations” is one of the two words we use to describe what we do every day. Trusted, long-term relationships between editors and PR professionals are at the heart of public relations excellence.

It’s getting harder to develop and maintain those relationships, though. PR moves fast – really fast – and speed and efficiency reign supreme when we’re pitching, responding to news trends, making last-minute changes to press releases and other content, and juggling a dozen other different priorities.

Most journalists work in a pressure-cooker environment, too; editors and reporters change jobs frequently, publications are typically short-staffed, and the number of journalism jobs continues to decline. It’s not an ideal environment for building relationships.

Yet relationships are critical to our wellbeing, both personally and professionally. It’s one of the most important life lessons that came out of the long COVID-19 shutdown, and it applies to both our personal and work lives.

So how can we keep the “relationship” part of PR front and center? Here are a few ideas.

1. Treat editors as individuals

Each relationship in our lives is unique. Our friends have different viewpoints, interests and quirks, and we respond to these whenever we have a conversation.

Editors aren’t all alike, either, and that’s why they get so annoyed at the “spray and pray” mass pitches that clueless PR agencies sometimes blast to hundreds of media contacts. (That’s not the way we do it at Ketner Group, I’m glad to say. For a funny, insightful perspective on this, check out this Slate article about how an editor decided to respond to every single PR pitch for one day.)

As a retail technology PR agency, we know the stories that retail tech journalists are looking for, and we tailor our pitches accordingly. Every editor has specific needs and preferences, and we do a disservice to them and our clients if we don’t take time to understand them.

2. Be responsive

An editor’s world is just as hectic and fast-paced as ours — sometimes more so, and many writers and editors must generate multiple stories each day. Time is of the essence in responding to media requests and making it as easy as possible for journalists.

Is an editor requesting client input for a time-sensitive story? Then move quickly to evaluate the opportunity, brief your client and meet or beat the deadline.

3. Remember what Mom said about manners

Did your mom always remind you to say “please” and “thank you?” Yeah, same here. Common courtesy goes a long way in every area of life, and that includes the workplace. Did an editor include your client in a story that made you look like a hero for landing great coverage? Then by all means, email them to say thanks.

4. Pass along a compliment

When you read a great story that’s not about your client, email the journalist and let them know how much you enjoyed it. Editors and reporters expect to hear from us when we’re pitching them, but it’s a pleasant surprise to get an email that’s not client-related. It also shows that you’re taking the time to read and appreciate their work.

All of us appreciate positive feedback, and journalists are no different.

5. Set expectations with clients

We’ve all dealt with clients that suffer from The Wall Street Journal syndrome, so setting the right expectations for media success is a vital part of  managing the client-agency relationship. It’s important for the editors and reporters that we work with, too.

As PR professionals, we should only approach editors with stories that are newsworthy and relevant to their audience.

If we take time to educate our clients and set proper expectations for working with media, they’ll understand what an editor really cares about, and we can tailor the PR outreach accordingly. It makes the editor’s job a lot easier, and it ultimately helps our clients get the coverage they hired us for.

Take PR beyond the transaction to the relational

These suggestions are just a starting point for developing good working relationships between journalists and PR professionals. I’m convinced, though, that we need these simple reminders more than ever.

Most editors we know work remotely on very tight deadlines and are bombarded with pitches, press releases, follow-up emails and Zoom meetings — while working hard and fast to produce great news content.

PR professionals can help by respecting journalists’ preferences, meeting deadlines and adding fresh insights and perspectives to the stories that they’re covering. If we do our job right by focusing on relationships, it helps moves PR from the transactional (“you do something for me, I’ll do something for you”) to the relational (“we’re working together to help achieve both our goals, and we’re doing it in a friendly, collaborative way”).

By focusing on relationships, we can make put a personal, thoughtful touch to what we do every day and make PR work better for journalists, clients and those of us who do it every day.

Do you work for a retail tech company that’s looking for a more effective way to work with editors and improve your earned media? Contact Ketner Group today; we’d enjoy talking to you about how to build better PR relationships.