Igniting the customer experience is the theme of this year’s Global Retailing Conference, where about 300 professionals and UA students gathered Thursday to hear retail powerhouses talk about connecting with consumers in fast-changing times.

“That moment of connection is the magic of retail,” Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, told the audience at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort.

Now in its 18th year, the annual conference, held by the University of Arizona Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing, continues at the resort today.

Here are highlights from Thursday’s event:

Walter Robb, Whole Foods Market

Finding ways to engage and connect with customers, combined with its “conscious capitalism” and core values, have brought Whole Foods Market to the top of the specialty store food chain, Robb said.

Whole Foods believes in transparency, he said. Customers know how animals are raised and where their foods come from. “We’re building trust and loyalty with our customers,” Robb said.

Stocking the shelves with local foods, involving customers in selecting and creating products, hosting kids’ cooking classes, and creating pop-up stores within the supermarkets to introduce new foods or vendors are all strategies Whole Foods employs to build on consumer relationships.

“The nature of retail is constantly changing. Customers want new and different things. The customer wants innovation,” Robb said. “Constantly changing is imperative, and is the joy of retailing.”

Whole Foods has close to 5,000 exclusive products. It has added bars in some of its stores, including one of its Tucson stores, at East River and North Craycroft roads.

The company’s core values include providing the highest quality, natural organic foods to the marketplace, Robb said. “If you say you’re about something, put that in action, so your customers and team members see what you’re about. That creates loyalty.”

Jeanne Jackson, Nike

“Nike, as a brand, probably has, I think, the strongest relationship with its consumers than any brand,” said Jeanne Jackson, president of product and merchandising for Nike. “There is an emotion attached with Nike that is very important to us. We are a brand that is all about excitement.”

Nike is a $27 billion company, Jackson said. It’s one of the largest purveyors of footwear and apparel in the world. “The footprint of Nike is a very large footprint. It’s a global footprint.” In fact, Nike can be found in 150 countries, and 55 percent of its business comes from outside of the United States. The company’s sales have doubled in the last 10 years.

Jackson credits the company’s growth to its relationships with athletes and to individual consumers.

Athletes, she said, are on some level the company’s most important consumers because if Nike can make products that make them perform better, it inspires others to perform like them. Nike’s signed athletes help the company improve its products by testing fabrics and helping in the design process.

“The elite athlete is a consumer and a muse,” Jackson said. “We care just as deeply for our consumers.”

For example, when Los Angeles Lakers’ star Kobe Bryant wanted shoes to help him move like a boxer on the court, he worked with Nike innovators to design the shoe, which was then teased as a masterpiece on Nike.com. There were videos to let consumers see Bryant play in the shoes and areas they could click on to see the technology.

“That is how we use Nike.com to get that deep, all the way down to the shoe lace connection with a product, “Jackson said.

Nike’s direct-to-consumer business has three parts — wholesale, Nike Inline (specialty stores) and factory stores. It has also implemented category stores based on consumer needs in certain areas. For example, a Nike Running store would be located in a town known for its running trails and running groups.

Factory stores are an important part of Nike’s global business, as well, especially in markets where consumers have trouble parting with $200 for a pair of shoes, Jackson said. “But, if they can start a relationship with our brand at a lower price point, we’ve got them. ... As their income goes up, they’ll eventually get the $200 shoes,” she said.

Student reactions

University of Arizona retail students were among those in attendance to learn from some of the top retailers in the industry. Here’s what a few had to say:

Alvin Li, 24, retailing consumer science major: “I liked learning about how Whole Foods is all about being local, even though they’re a big company and keep it unique for each store.”

Alexis Cox, 20, retailing consumer science major: “I want to try everything. If you try to experience and explore new opportunities, you see where you want to be in life. It’s great to have this time to see how successful people got to where they want to be. Not only to succeed in retail, but in helping people. It’s really inspiring.”

Jalen Campbell, 19, retailing consumer science major: “I’m looking at internships at Nike or Adidas, but I’m not trying to limit myself. ... I liked hearing from Nike, which I was interested in, but also the other companies and hearing about the way they run their business and how they view consumers. It helps to see their mindset and how they became successful.”

Reporter Angela Pittenger is at 573-4137 or apitteng@azstarnet.com.

Families and schools reporter for #ThisIsTucson. Artist, photographer, mother of one.