Homemaking magnate Martha Stewart was in Tucson Thursday to give retail leaders from across the country a look into how she built an international media and merchandising empire.

Stewart spoke to about 250 retailers gathered for the first day of this year's Global Retailing Conference, an event held annually by the University of Arizona's Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing. The conference, which continues today at Loews Ventana Canyon, is sold out.

The theme of the event was "Inspiring Innovation" but, on a day that was dominated by discussion of mobile devices and social media, Stewart's most powerful advice for retailers was tried and true and relatively low-tech: Give the customers what they want.

For Stewart, figuring out what customers want means figuring out what she herself wants.

Stewart credited the success of her expansive media and retail empire, which encompasses numerous lifestyle-centered magazines, television shows, books, websites and Martha Stewart product lines, to her company's commitment to create products its employees would use themselves.

"We live the life of our customers. We know what they need and what they want because it's what we need and what we want," Stewart said. "With any of our products we ask, 'Do we want it?' If we don't covet it for ourselves it's not good enough for our customers."

To that effect, Stewart said her own homes are stocked with Martha Stewart-brand products.

Stewart's speech also contained a reference to her stint in federal prison on charges related to an insider trading investigation.

"To me the customer is the all-important part of our business. We never want to disappoint, we never want to lose that valued customer," Stewart said. "And I think our customers trust us. They never left me when I had my legal problems. They were staunchly supportive and they still are today."

Stewart said authenticity is also key in building a brand and that her Do-It-Yourself public persona isn't an act. When she partnered with The Home Depot for a line of home-improvement products, Stewart said, she made sure she knew the work she was getting into.

"I can really drive a bulldozer. I can really drive a 95-horsepower John Deere tractor. I can drive a backhoe. I can use all the tools Home Depot sells, pretty much," she said.

Stewart also touched on her foray into new media. In addition to having multiple blogs on her websites, she declared herself an avid Twitter user, even responding to tweets on-stage from her BlackBerry.

Stewart said she uses Twitter for no more than five minutes a day, but that she uses it efficiently, to do research, push out information about her company or connect with other users.

So far, Stewart said she has 2.2 million followers.

Stewart said she uses social media to educate and inform consumers about her company's products.

"It works," she said.

But one of Stewart's last pieces of advice pre-dated the Internet.

When an audience member asked her how she turned her passion into an international business, her answer was simple: "It's called HW: Hard Work. You can have all the passion in the world, but if you're lazy, forget it."

Conference highlights

Here were some other highlights from Day One of the UA's Global Retailing Conference, which concludes today at Loews Ventana Canyon resort:

• Terry J. Lundgren, Macy's president and CEO, as well as the UA retailing center's namesake, said his company is working to bring the online experience inside its stores. Lundgren said Macy's is using Quick Response codes on merchandise that can be scanned by smartphones to access online content related to the products, such as fashion tips from celebrity designers. Lundgren said the individual shopping experience is becoming more and more important and that, in order to survive in the wireless age, brick-and-mortar stores have to be as interesting for consumers as the online experience.

• Mike George, president and CEO of the home-shopping channel company QVC, said companies need to move aggressively to create unique shopping experiences for mobile devices.

"I don't think any of us can truly comprehend the power of mobile devices," he said. "It will make the growth of retail on the Internet look glacial."

• Barbara Turf, CEO of Crate & Barrel, said effective marketing is the "game changer" in a new era of retail. Turf said the marketing triad has shifted from advertisements, direct mail and email to mobile devices, social media and email.

• Raul Vazquez, executive vice president for Walmart, said price transparency created by the Internet has changed retail forever by making store walls "porous." Companies have to adapt to the best-educated consumers in history, he said.

Contact reporter Alex Dalenberg at adalenberg@azstarnet.com or 807-8429. Alex Dalenberg