There is no way to predict the customer of the future, but at the World Department Store Forum held in Rome (23 & 24 April) CEOs of some of the major department stores around the world at least try to find ways to approach a strategy. Not a new conclusion, but maybe more important than ever and therefore a true mantra: surprise the customer. Here are some quotes we overheard at a round table today.

Hiroshi Ohnishi, President & CEO, Isetan Mitsukoshi:
"Today, there are fewer chances that people come to a department store because they have more opportunities to shop, for example in specialty stores and of course online. That makes it even more important to create an exciting atmosphere in the department store and surprise the customers. One thing we implemented are special promotion spaces on each floor."

Simone Dominici, General Manager, Coin:
"Why don't you partner with experts for certain areas to find out what the different consumer groups want? You cannot know all of this by yourself."

"If you rework one department for a certain age group you trigger also connected groups: when we relaunched our streetwear floor addressed to teenagers it helped also bringing back their parents who are heading for other departments, e.g. homeware."

"We should not make the mistake to ask customers too much about what they want because then we only find out what they already expect. Instead we need to find out what they DO NOT expect. Listen to them to surprise them!"

Marco Capello, Chairman, Liberty:
"You need to be able to explain who your customer is in one sentence. We need to evaluate realtime data more intensively to find out what the customers want. Actually, we need to know them better than they know themselves."

Vittorio Radice, Vice Chairman, La Rinascente Group:
"Tourists are a major factor. People work less and less, so what do they do in their spare time? They travel. And they spend money at the locations they travel to because they want to buy a souvenir, a memory of that moment. The shopping streets became more and more important - in Rome it is not only the Colosseum or the Vatican that tourists go to, they also consider Via Condotti as part of their Rome experience."

Paolo de Cesare, Chairman & CEO, Printemps:
"Stop thinking about a department store being the place to sell large quantities. Today, it is a place where you have to create a relationship to your customer, create an experience and emotions. Customers remember very well WHERE they spent money for a certain item - they keep this as a memory, and memories make emotions."