Three executives with deep experience in the world of retail offered advice on how to navigate its rapidly changing landscape, including how to compete with behemoths like Walmart and Amazon.

Eric Blom, director of external communications and community relations for Hannaford; Brian MacLeod, associate director, customer service for Wayfair; and Steve Pogson, principal of Helm Digital and the first certified Shopify expert in Maine agreed that finding a way to meet customer needs no matter where they are — in physical or digital space — is the only way to beat competitors. They shared their insights during the Times Record Business Breakfast Forum on Wednesday, Sept. 18, held at Maine Technology Institute in Brunswick Landing.

Among the takeaways:

While acknowledging that competitors like Walmart and Amazon can be formidable, there are ways to go toe-to-toe. Blom said, for instance, the huge online companies may have extraordinary proficiency in technology, but Hannaford has a lot of experience on the ground such as knowing local farmers and decades of safely handling food.  “As they’re trying to learn a very complex business, we are also learning and developing in the digital space.”

Pogson tipped his cap to companies like Amazon for raising the bar for customer expectations as far as speed and convenience are concerned. But completing transactions quickly doesn’t allow for a customer to develop a relationship with a retailer, and that creates a competitive advantage for retailers who prize their brand and make customer service the most important thing.

“I don’t think Amazon can do (Wayfair’s level of ) customer service right now,” said Pogson. “Sometimes those transactions can feel a little lacking in experience… that one click “add to cart” and it shows up the next day actually loses some of the brand experience and customer service that people actually want in their lives.”

MacLeod says Wayfair puts its resources into technology, logistics and employees. The company believes in investing its employees and empowering them to make decisions that satisfies customers and creates brand loyalty.

“… creating a great experience for the customer starts with creating a great experience for the employee,” said MacLeod. “My job and my team’s job is to make sure we invest in the right people. Because if our team is engaged then when they interact with a customer, they will delight that customer, and that customer will allow us to continue to grow in a competitive marketplace.”

All three of the panelists said competitive retailers must meet customers’ expectations in all channels — whether in physical stores or digital space. Gathering data and research on customer behavior and preferences is also important to guide decisions to improve customer service.

But they also said companies need to embrace change and experimentation. A case in point — Hannaford, which was founded in 1883, is refining the technology in its store app to better server its customers, while at the same time it is opening a new physical store in Brunswick. Likewise Wayfair, which now has more than 1,000 employees in Maine, continues to improve its online experience for customers, but has also invested in a physical store in Natick, Massachusetts, to gather deeper information about customer preferences.

Pogson said Helm Digital, which has a division focused on helping small businesses navigate the digital retail world, said framing the future of retail as a physical space versus digital divide isn’t the right way to look at it.

“No matter where a  customer is interacting with you as a retailer, you are greeting them with as much information as possible and delivering the best experience you can, and ultimately, I think there’s a reciprocal experience where … there’s a wealth of opportunity to gather information about who they are and hopefully utilizing that information to cater to their customer experience. Because the more information you have, hopefully you are turning that information around and saying “This is how I can be a better retailer and actually serve the customer better.”

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