South by Southwest isn't just big for tech, film and music. Retailers make a splash at SXSW

Key Points
  • SXSW, known for its massive music festivities and focus on emerging technologies and new media, will host some of the nation's biggest retailers this year.
  • Companies like Walmart, Nordstrom, Macy's, Nike and Lululemon will have a presence at South by Southwest.
  • Digital brands like Away, Rent the Runway and StockX also will be there.
During the South By Southwest Music Festival in 2015.
Photo by Gary Miller

South by Southwest brings some of the biggest names in tech, film and music together in Austin, Texas, in what has become one of the wildest — and most diversely attended — conferences of the year.

This year, speakers include former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, comedian Kathy Griffin and actress/entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow. In between the glamour and geeks, companies like Walmart, Macy's, Nordstrom and Kohl's are sending execs to Austin to tout new technologies and how they're keeping up with the changing retail landscape.

In addition, some retailers that started out and still mostly sell online will be at this year's SXSW, which starts Friday and runs through March 17. Among them are luggage maker Away, clothing rental service Rent the Runway, apparel companies Revolve and Outdoor Voices and online marketplace StockX.

"There's been so much change in the industry in the last few years and a lot of people who have said that retail is dying," said Away's Will Williams, who is speaking on a panel. But, he added, "there's still appetite for interacting in real life ... I'm excited that [SXSW] gives us a platform to share with other industry peers and thought leaders why physical retail still matters."

Walmart is sending its Chief Technology Officer Jeremy King to talk about why stores still play an important role in the retailer's e-commerce strategy. Kohl's is sending Grace Burgio, who manages artificial intelligence for the department store chain, to discuss how AI is helping Kohl's boost in-store sales. Executives from Nike and Lululemon will talk about why athleisure and streetwear apparel are outperforming other fashion categories. Macy's vice president of business development for fashion, Lauren Wilner, will speak about customer loyalty and brand ambassadors.

"2018 was a strong innovation year for Macy's. We innovate to create engaging experiences for our customers," a Macy's spokeswoman said, explaining why the company is going to SXSW this year. "And we also innovate to apply technology to customer friction points. In 2019, we will continue to innovate and explore new experiences and new content into our stores."

Disclosure: CNBC's Lauren Thomas will also be speaking on a panel at SXSW this year.